Devils in search of an identity

Devils in search of an identity

One look at the ASU basketball roster, and it's fairly easy to realize that this year's team will certainly be different. Whether it's a new backcourt, new schemes on both ends of the floor or new assistants with an NBA backgrounds, changes are abound in Tempe. Can this new look benefit a squad trying to pull itself out of the Pac-12 basement? Our basketball preview examines the 2012-13 ASU squad.

Arizona State is coming off two consecutive 10th place finishes, and has lost his top scorer and leader, Trent Lockett, who transferred to Marquette. Lockett was one of five players who left the program. Consequently some new faces, as well as less experienced players, will be asked to carry the load and play a bigger role than last year.

So right now you have a Sun Devil team that still may be trying to figure out how they will score on a consistent basis. It's fair to assume that Carson, Gordon and Gilling would be the players that could help the most in that area. This isn't necessary a criticism on the overall personnel, but rather one manifestation of how much transition has affected this team and the learning curve associated with all these new moving parts, etc. Granted, you would like the team to be further along at this point of the year but at least for the time being the adjustment process isn't completed.

The defensive scheme shift from Head Coach Herb Sendek's staple zone defense to man to man is actually one aspect that the team has picked up quite nicely thus far. One could argue that they are pretty far along in this department something that is certainly encouraging just days before their season opener. This man to man scheme is just as aggressive as the zone system the Sun Devils employed for the last six seasons with pack principles trying to keep the ball out of the paint, rebound the ball effectively and get into your transition game as quickly as possible and score easy baskets.

With a fast point guard such as Carson, you expect all the pre-season talk about playing a more up tempo style to be anything but lip service. Creating turnovers can obviously help with this offensive system and needless to say that shifting to a man to man scheme, while playing up tempo will give you more opportunities to force the opposition into mistakes. Speaking of turnovers, a faster pace on offense can also create opportunities to make mistakes of you own, and that is something that ASU has been dealing with during the pre-season.

Furthermore, this scheme does require a different level of conditioning, and while the team worked hard in that area over the summer there is nothing that can quite simulate game time conditioning until the season tips-off. There is no telling what kind of shape ASU will be in as the season commences and if they will have the stamina to play at that high rate.

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One aspect that hindered the Sun Devils last season was the overall effort, or lack thereof, that they exhibited in most games and that naturally affected their rebounding capabilities. The team's energy thus far in the pre-season is better compared to last year and the team is playing with more purpose but it still can improve in this area. Great effort doesn't always translate to great execution and this theory is proving true with this ASU team. Again, effectiveness is something that is impacted by all the changes they team has undergone and the squad is employing an offensive pace that can often cause you to error.

Much has been written already about the impact that new assistant coaches, Eric Musselman and Larry Greer, have brought to the team with their wealth of NBA experience. Even though they are both relatively new to the college level, teaching about the various nuances of the game is something that can still apply from the professional ranks to this level. This tandem didn't affect any the decision to employ the new schemes on both ends of the court, but their input on those aspects has obviously been invaluable.

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Last year the team had 12 starting lineups, but this year barring injuries we would expect that number to be much lower. So here is our projected lineup along with an analysis of each player.

Guard Carrick Felix (Twitter handle @C_Felix0) – We've been saying this for the last couple of years and because he's a senior we get to this one last time: Felix is the X-factor on this team. In other words, if he has an above average season hard to imagine the Sun Devils having a poor record. Yes, he is that important to the team.

But before the season has even tipped-off, the local player from Goodyear Millennium High School is assuming the much-needed role of team leader and the reviews of that transformation have been glowing.

This extremely athletic wing player should in theory thrive in this new offensive system. However, his level of consistency, which has been the case for his entire Sun Devil tenure, will ultimately dictate his impact on the squad. He's one player that has to "stay in his lane" and be the best at what he does being a high energy and high effort player, a tenacious and quick defender, someone that will be a significant part of ASU's transition game and converting on the opportunities presented to him.

The team's leading returning scorer from a season ago has all the tools but has yet to put it all together. If he does, he will end his Sun Devil career on a very high note. Simply put, now is his time.

Guard Jahii Carson (@Jahii_carson1) – it's virtually impossible to curtail the level of expectations placed on this former Mesa High School standout who was arguably the best player in the state in the 2011 recruiting class. Sendek has said many times that we shouldn't expect this talented point guard to be a super hero, especially in his first year of playing college basketball. After being ruled academically ineligible last season, Carson had in essence a forced redshirt year but that period of time allowed him to mature and get stronger physically.

It goes without saying that Carson provides an additional dimension to this team as far as getting in and out of tight spaces, his ability to penetrate the paint and overall be the consummate playmaker. His one-year hiatus from playing competitive basketball, let alone playing at a level he never experienced with the aforementioned changes with this year's squad, can on paper create a learning curve that could be dangerously steep.

While Carson right now has a good mental grasp on what the team is doing and how he should be utilized, and he has been the proverbial "coach on the floor" a role that is expected to be carried out by every point guard, there have been some ball security issues. Again, something to be expected while executing a high temp system but something that will need to be cleaned up sooner rather than later.

At the high school level Carson relied heavily on his talent and rightfully so, At the college level that talent will be often negated by the opposing player he will match up against. The urge of wanting to make something spectacular everytime you touch the ball is a trap that Carson simply cannot fall into especially during the several non-conference home games coming up where he could be tempted to try and reward those who specifically came to see him to put on "a show."

Being consistent and hitting singles rather than swinging for the fences on each play will help the team that much more and also set you up for the eventual home run. To his credit, Carson has been able to handle all the pressure so far which obviously is more intense in nature being that he's a local player who's being closely followed. He has shown the desire and work ethic to improve every day and that approach should serve him well in the long run.

Guard Evan Gordon – lightly recruited out of high school, the high-scoring guard started his college career at Liberty where he put up 14.3 PPG as a sophomore before transferring to ASU. The brother of New Orleans Hornets guard Eric Gordon has a scorer's mentality and his aggressiveness will only open up the offense that much more. For several months now he has been pegged as Carson's running mate in the backcourt, and will be heavily relied upon to provide double digit scoring every game, especially when things do breaks down during an offensive set.

His experience, his chemistry with Carson, his deft defensive skills all have already been standing out and could prove as a considerable building block for a productive year. Gordon probably stands the best chance of being the Sun Devils' leading scorer at season's end.

Center Jordan Bachynski (@JayBeeOneThree) – We wish we were harsh calling the 7-2 250 junior an enigma, but the Calgary native is still one player that is hard to figure out let alone set a reasltic expectation level for.

In his first 19 games of his sophomore season, Bachynski averaged 2.5 PPG and 2.2 RPG and it was easy to wonder if he would ever put all the pieces together. Then something happened. A reported a visit with a mentor in the LDS church in Salt Lake City caused the center to do a 180 degree turn and in the last 13 games of the season, his averages increased to 10.1 PPG and 5.9 RPG.

Nonetheless, the pre-season suggested that the strong finish of last season didn't propel him to the next level or cure the irregularity that has plagued his game. He's still at the point where he will show flashes of brilliance so it's like his prospects for the upcoming season are guaranteed to be gloom and doom. He has improved his ability to finish at the rim but will need to bring up his 54 percent free throw shooting.

Bachynski is a player that can hit you with as many impressive plays as he will with head scratching ones, and maybe some of that is attributed the normal slow rate of development of big men. His base of basketball knowledge isn't there yet and he is still in the process of establishing himself. Time will tell if will truly break out in the 2012-13 season.

Forward Jonathan Gilling (@jgilling31) – There is a lot to like about the Danish import that single-handily (21 points on 7/8 shooting including five three-pointers) torched archrival Arizona's NCAA Tournament plans in last March's shocking upset. There are natural comparisons to former Sun Devil, Rihards Kuksiks, who also played for most of his career in Europe. However, Gilling is more athletic, a better passer, stronger on defense and adds more variety on the offensive end. In this offensive scheme, his ability to stretch the defense and get opposing big men out of position will prove invaluable and with guards who can penetrate and collapse defenses he should be able to see more than his fair share of open looks.

Even though his pre-season play showed that he has no plans to take a step back from a formidable freshman season, needless to say that his name will appear much more than it did last year on the scouting report and being one of the focal points of opposing defenses is probably the biggest adjustment he has to make.

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In no particular order, let's take a look at the reserves:

Guard Chris Colvin (@SelfMade_02) – When Carson was ruled ineligible, Colvin, a JUCO transfer, was pressed into more duty than expected and looked overwhelmed at times with mounting turnovers and a bad attitude that cost him a couple games in the middle of the season. However, he matured quickly as his game took great strides in the second half of the season highlighted by dishing out nine assists against only two turnovers in the upset of Arizona in the regular season finale.

With Carson and Gordon on board, Colvin's experience, size and athleticism are a luxury the Devils are all too happy to have. One shouldn't be too quick to relegate him as a backup to Carson and/or Gordon because if the situation calls for it all three could be on the floor at the same time, and all three share a strong bond on and off the court that can benefit the squad.

Either way, the senior can prove to be an important player and at times during the pre-season he has come to the forefront with his play. However, and much the case with a lot of the returning players, he has his own bouts with inconsistency. His passing skills and overall decision making have improved over last year so he could end up as one of the better reserves on this year's squad.

Center Ruslan Pateev (@Ruslan23Pateev) – A frustrating first three seasons for the 7-footer from Russia has the Sun Devil faithful pining for a resurgence akin to Eric Boateng's three years ago when the Duke transfer looked lost for a few seasons before breaking out and contributing to a winning team in his final campaign. Pateev has never looked comfortable and never overpowered opponents with his size. Yet, there are some signs that maybe his curtain call will finally erased the disappointment of the last three seasons.

His confidence has improved and him adding a fairly consistent mid-range jumper to his offensive arsenal, can naturally create desired mismatches on this end of the floor. He's still regarded as one the smartest players on the team, as well as one of the better passers. A healthy competition between all of ASU's frontcourt players has seemed to benefit the senior.

Forward Eric Jacobsen (@Jacobsen_Eric) – an unheralded recruit coming in has been a huge and pleasant surprise in the preseason and could really push for a significant role in the rotation. His basketball IQ and maturity for a true freshman is simply off the charts. His footwork, hands and just overall feel for the game have been lauded and as long as he continues to build up for the rigors of the college season, Jacobsen just might give the Sun Devils a towering presence alongside Jordan Bachynski or at the very least will be a formidable backup player.

At 6-11 250 pounds Jacobsen plays to his size and for good or for bad this newcomer is perhaps the most physical player on the squad. His work ethic is just another of several traits that has created genuine excitement over the former Chandler Hamilton standout.

Guard Bo Barnes (@bobarnes24) – the local product from Westwind Prep is back on the mainland after spending a season at Hawaii where he set the freshman record for most three-pointers with 66 treys for the Warriors in 2010-11. So it's not too hard to figure out what his calling card is and why he was such an attractive option for ASU.

When he's open he will be expected to knock down every one of those shots. Nonetheless, being one dimensional will obviously handicap him and the team so he has worked on being a high effort player on both ends of the court doing some of unheralded tasks and doing the little things that make the big things happen.

All in all, Barnes has showed pretty well in the pre-season and his willingness to be a more rounded player has been very encouraging.

Forward Kenny Martin – Long, athletic and raw are the things you hear about the local freshman from Glendale Kellis High School, but he has a knack for blocking shots and is a tenacious rebounder, two things ASU have long desired from one of their own. The natural newcomer learning curve hit him a bit harder than it did Jacobsen, but his high energy and effort are slowly but surely playing dividends. The playing time for this 6-8 forward may come in shorter spurts but he can certainly be one player who will maximize every second he's on the floor.

Forward Richie Edwards – the Valparaiso transfer will sit out this year and will have one year of eligibility remaining when he plays next season. The 6-7 forward is face up jump shooting player, who can also create shots off the bounce and be a frequent visitor to the charity stripe. This forced hiatus will allow him to fine tune his game, get in better shape and establish his role for next year's team. Edwards stands to be as solid reserve player who could make a push for a starting role next season.

G – Calaen Robinson (@CalaenRobinson) – as we publish this preview this local freshman from Tempe Corona Del Sol is still suspended due to a University matter that should be resolved, one way or another, in the next couple of weeks. If reinstated, Robinson who has been absent from team activities since August, will naturally have a lot of ground to make up and being redshirted is definitely one plausible scenario for him.

As it is, this combo guard was probably going to find himself towards the end of the bench anyway. However, his lighting quickness and ball handling skills make him an intriguing option off the bench even with limited court time. But again, his future at this point is very much in doubt.

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Head Coach Herb Sendek (@HerbSendek) is entering his seventh season in Tempe, and it is safe to assume that his job security isn't exactly iron-clad. With a combined 40 losses in the past two seasons and a head scratching attrition rate, the Sun Devils need to start winning immediately for the tension to subside and more importantly not to lose a small and already fragile fan base. While we don't suggest that Sendek was pressured by the fans to alter his approach this season, the aforementioned changes both on offense and defense are easy crowd pleasers. Therefore, even if this is Sendek's last season with the Sun Devils no one can claim that he was unwilling to change his ways during his final campaign.

Assistant Coach Dedrique Taylor (@asucoachtaylor) is the lone holdover assistant returning this season, and serves as a very important bridge between Sendek and the new assistants brought onboard and is also the lead recruiter of the staff. The fact that he's a very familiar face to all of the players is something that cannot be overstated in this time of transition.

Assistant Coach Eric Musselman (@EricPMusselman) is simply a coaching lifer, albeit getting his first stint at the college level. Musselman's success is something that seemingly goes unnoticed but something that should truly excite ASU fans. In his career as a head coach, his win-loss record is 573-344. If you take out NBA stops when he commanded the ship of two also-rans, Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings where he went a combined 108-138, his career record is an immaculate 415-167.

Musselman will mainly be coaching the offense so it will be interesting to see how this scheme, which will have Musselman's fingerprints all over it, succeeds or not.

Assistant Coach Larry Greer – A former NBA assistant who has a reputation of being one of the best advanced scouts at that level, brings a lot of tactical knowledge and professional experience to this young squad. Greer, who actually was a college assistant coach during the early stages of his career, will be mainly coaching the defense and having a challenging task of having a team which played a heavy dose of zone to make the changeover to man to man.

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The non-conference schedule features a soft slate of games. For what it's worth you will see a very weak RPI when all is said and done. The fact of the matter is this: if you are losing 20+ games, like ASU did last year, and suffering defeats at the hands of Pepperdine, DePaul, NAU, Fairfield, Southern Miss and Fresno State – why would you go out and schedule a bunch of ranked opponents to get your feet wet?

This team needs to get a winning mentality engrained into them before embarking on the Pac-12 season. There are some good games on the horizon with Arkansas and then Wisconsin or Creighton in the Old Spice Classic in Las Vegas. DePaul will make a trip to Tempe and the Devils will play their only true road game of the non-conference slate against Texas Tech. Winning games is the goal and this schedule provides ample opportunity for that feat to be accomplished.

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After opening the season with 13 winnable non-conference games, the Sun Devils will open Pac-12 play at home against Utah and Colorado before tripping to Oregon and Oregon State. If this ASU team is truly improved, splitting these first four games isn't very farfetched. That being said, the schedule following those contests goes downhill in a hurry and the lowlight is finishing the regular season with three road games against a much-improved USC squad as well as national title contenders UCLA and Arizona.

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This team has more balance and depth than the last couple of years and a favorable schedule to kick start he campaign won't hurt the chances of an improved season.

This group of players is better than the squads that have taken the floor the last two seasons. That is a significant achievement given all of the transfers and frustration surrounding the program. Jahii Carson, Carrick Felix and Jordan Bachynski are all players that could conceivably have all-conference seasons. There is a level of urgency and accountability drifting in the air that has not been there before in Herb Sendek's tenure and that will shape this team for better or worse.

My prediction for the Sun Devils is 21-11 with a few victories that no one saw coming. Overall, I believe that Sendek can still salvage this team and turn it around.

It may just be time to dust off your Herbivores shirt.

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