Going into last week, Arizona State (19-7, 8-5) had earned a split in each of its road series during conference play but faced a daunting task on Saturday, facing a Colorado team, who under Head Coach Thad Boyle, boasted a 42-5 record in home games over the last three seasons. After a slow start, ASU managed to stake to a six point lead with just over a minute left in regulation before the Buffaloes evened the score late, forcing overtime.
After a Spencer Dinwiddie basket gave Colorado a one point lead with eight seconds to go in the extra frame, Evan Gordon was able to penetrate against a broken Buffalo defense for a game-winning lay-up at the buzzer, giving the Sun Devils a 63-62 victory.
"First and foremost and most importantly, Jon did a great job with the quick inbounds pass," said Sendek on Monday of the final play and his decision to not call a timeout. "That was the key to the whole sequence that then developed. Followed by the fact that Jahii did a great job of racing the ball up the court. Those two things happened bang-bang. So that put me in an immediate good frame of mind. And at that point, before their defense is set, there's a certain amount of randomness or even chaos, you have a much better chance of breaking the defense down, like Evan was ultimately able to do.
"Any time you're in a close game it comes down to players making plays. You saw that in our game Saturday; Jahii made a great bank shot lay-up, Evan did, Dinwiddie was making plays down at the other end and getting to the foul line. So players make plays down the home stretch."
It was ASU's first win in Boulder (1-4 all-time) and gave the Sun Devils the season sweep over the Buffaloes.
Jahii Carson led the Sun Devils with 18 points in the win while Gordon came off the bench for the first time this season to add 14 points, including 4-8 shooting from behind the three point line. Prior to that, ASU had been just one of a handful of teams in the country who had used the same starting rotation all season but after a disappointing offensive performance against the Utes on Wednesday, Sendek sought alternative scoring options.
"It was big for our team," he said of Gordon's effort off the bench. "One thing we've been lacking all year is a scoring punch off the bench. We finally decided we had to make a change to help us in that area and it coincided with the fact that Chris Colvin really helps us against Colorado and our defensive match-ups. But the way Evan responded, hitting the big three down the stretch in the corner and then obviously the driving lay-up, was big."
While nothing has been set in stone, Sendek indicated on Monday that he anticipates sticking with Gordon coming off the bench and Colvin starting alongside Carson for the team's final five regular season games.
Arizona State improved to 3-0 in overtime games this season, and is now 9-4 overall in overtime games under Sendek. Including last Saturday's win, the combined score of ASU's last six games has been 398-401, demonstrating just how closely contested the conference has been this season.
"I think the closeness of the games is just remarkable," said Sendek. "I mean every game we play seemingly goes to overtime or comes to the last possession, almost without exception. And then the other interesting phenomenon right now, not just with us, but leads evaporate. What seems like it might be a relatively one-sided finish all of a sudden you look up and it's not.
Whether it's us at Washington, or us against Stanford or a couple instances where we've had the lead and you blink and it's a one possession game. The way games see-saw and eventually converge in the last two minutes is just remarkable."
Another good sign for the Sun Devils on Saturday was the re-emergence of senior center Jordan Bachynski, who had struggled mightily in the team's last three games, averaging just 3.3 points, three rebounds and 15 minutes. Against the athletic and aggressive Colorado front court though, Bachysnki notched 12 points, 3 rebounds and 3 blocks in 37 minutes, displaying a level of toughness that had been absent from his game over the past couple of weeks.
"Fortunately for us he really got back on track, especially early in the game against Colorado," commented Sendek. "I think in any season if you look at a small sample set, like a game or a small stretch of games, there's likely to be more variability. But when you take the 30,000 foot view of Jordan, we consider where he's come, given the fact that he hadn't played basketball for three years and now he's two and a half years into his basketball career, it really is nothing short of remarkable. We're still talking about a young man who still leads our conference in blocked shots, is fourth in field goal percentage and really has an impact on the game on both ends of the floor."
"Has he always played his best? Nope. But I don't know who among us has. He's had some monster games. He's had some games where quite frankly there have been some very difficult match-ups for him. Stanford comes to mind, when they're playing a guy who literally could be a big-time NBA small forward in Dwight Powell. It's a team game and not just a function of what you do and don't do."
The Final Homestand
Arizona State concludes its home schedule at Wells Fargo Arena this week as it welcomes Washington State on Wednesday and Washington on Saturday. The Sun Devils will be looking to complete the season sweep of the Cougars while trying to avenge an earlier loss to the Huskies in Seattle.
ASU was able to knock off Washington State (11-15, 2-11) 63-59 on January 31st, falling behind by as many as nine points in the first half before rallying behind the second half efforts of Carson and Carrick Felix. The Cougars have dropped their last six games, including an overtime defeat to conference-leader Oregon over the weekend, but are led by seniors Brock Motum and Michael Ladd. Motum enters the week averaging 17.8 points and 6.2 rebounds, while Ladd has upped his averages to 11.4 points and 5.9 rebounds.
"Once again it's going to be two great challenges for our team," commented Sendek. "Washington State has one of the premiere players in all of college basketball, Brock Motum. You're talking about a young man who is 6'10", a senior who is strong physically and is tough. He shoots the three, he posts up and drives it on isolations.
"He's teamed with a point guard in Michael Ladd who's having a stellar season. He's among the conference leaders in scoring. A big point guard. And then they have some good shooters around them. At times they play five, three point shooters on the floor together, creating some real concerns, match-up wise."
The Sun Devils were defeated by Washington (14-12, 6-7) in an old-fashion shootout two nights later in Seattle, falling 96-92 despite a career-high 32 points from Carson. It marked the most points scored by a Sendek-led Sun Devil team in a loss - much to the chagrin of the coach, and one way ASU looks to avenge this weekend.
"It was a fast and furious game, one guy making a shot after another," said Sendek. "High scoring game, which I know people tend to enjoy; I don't know how much defense we played in that game. But that's not considered as important as scoring, I guess. It was an exciting college basketball game, just didn't end up the way we wanted it to."
"We're going to have to be at our best but our guys have been great about that approach. "
The Huskies have lost three of their last four and seven of their lost nine games. They're led by C.J. Wilcox, averaging 17.6 points and 4.7 rebounds, and senior Scott Suggs, who's contributing 11.3 points and 2.3 rebounds per game.
Aziz N' Diaye leads the Pac-12 in double-doubles this year and is averaging 10.3 points and 9.6 rebound.
In their last meeting at Washington, the Huskies outrebounded the Sun Devils 33-17, including 12-1 on the offensive glass.
Predicting Tourney Chances
With ASU's win against Colorado, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi moved the Sun Devils from one of his first four out to one if the last four in, on his NCAA tournament big board, much to the delight of Arizona State fans but not so much their coach. With five regular session games still on the schedule and a conference tournament in Las Vegas, Sendek remains leery of the pitfalls ahead for his Sun Devils if they lose their focus down the stretch.
"I find it almost impossible to imagine how a group of people can discern who should be in and out in a year like this in college basketball," he remarked. "I mean right now if you had to even try to predict the order of finish in our conference, you might as well play Russian Roulette. Who knows? I mean, every game comes down to the last possession and there are so many good teams across the country. And every other conference is just like ours. It's not like ours is unique."
Entering the week, Arizona State is currently ranked 70th in the RPI rankings, taking into account both their win-loss record and strength of schedule. Wins over Colorado (22nd), UCLA (41st), California (54th) and Arkansas (74th) certainly improve their resume, but the only thing the Sun Devils are focused on now is winning as many games as possible down the stretch, says their coach.
"It's not just a function of what we do, but it's a function of what happens across the country," he commented. "There may be a league champion from another conference that might get knocked off but they're getting in any way but if they win the conference tournament they'll be the only team in from that conference. So that has a domino effect. The only thing you can do is win as many games as possible. Winning is good and losing doesn't help your cause."
"The other thing that can be said true as well is you've seen sometimes down the home stretch, whatever happens that last game in the conference tournament, or the quarterfinals of a conference tournament, if they win it they're in and if they lose it they're out. You're thinking, 'Wow, we've been playing since November and it's down to that.' I have no idea. I think it's all madness."