TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State refuses to enter the Pac-12 tournament in "safe" mode as it pertains to the school’s impending NCAA tournament appearance, results notwithstanding, and that might be the safest approach.
ASU seems to play better when the down-side risk is great, as a double-overtime victory over then-No. 1 Arizona and double-digit victories over Stanford and California in the last month have shown.
"We are really trying to put that on the back burner," Jahii Carson said of the incipient NCAA chatter.
"We know that if we win the Pac-12 tournament or we have a great win streak, that is going to help our NCAA chances and our seeding. We’re just looking to have fun and make some noise in the thing. We’re just looking to win our tournament, and then we have nothing to talk about."
The Sun Devils (21-10) needed the victories over Arizona, Stanford and California to negate two losses in Oregon last week and hang onto the No. 3 seed in the Pac-12 tournament. They will have an extra day of rest before playing Thursday night against Stanford. ASU split with the Cardinal in the regular season.
ASU is listed as a No. 8 seed in one faux NCAA bracket and a No. 9 seed in another as selection Sunday approaches, but the immediate focus, center Jordan Bachynski said, is winning the school’s first conference postseason tournament. ASU made the finals once, in James Harden’s final season in 2009. That also was the last time ASU made the NCAA tournament.
"We’ve never hung a banner in Wells (Fargo Arena), and that is still a goal of ours," Bachynski said. "The season’s not over. If we start resting on our laurels … We’re not in the tournament yet. Stuff happens every day. Something miraculous could happen. Something crazy could happen. We need more wins to solidify our position."
The site seems to bring out the best in Carson, whether it is the MGM Grand, the Thomas and Mack Center or the New Orleans Arena. Carson has been brighter than the Vegas strip in his five college games there, including a 34-point game in an 89-88, overtime victory over Stanford in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament last season, when he made 14 of 22 field goals and set a tournament freshman scoring record. He has averaged 28.8 points in Las Vegas and had a 40-point game at UNLV on Nov. 19 this season, scoring 26 in the second half.
"I feel like it’s showtime in Vegas," Carson said. "Everybody has all the energy. The gambling is going around. I feel like people are there to see a show, to I try to put on one."
Carson has 24 and 26 points against Stanford in the regular season, but the tall, long Cardinal had success bottling up Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Bachynski, limiting him to nine points and 13 rebounds in the two games.
"I think we have to press reset and be desperate in a good way," Carson said of recovering the losses in Oregon. "We have to be hungry. I definitely think my team knows we have to win basketball games. If guys step up and play their roles and we play with energy and intensity, I think it is tough to beat us."
There are concerns. The Sun Devils have been outrebounded in six of their last seven games, and Stanford had the edge on the boards in both meetings. The Oregon schools were plus-18 in rebounding last week, and Oregon State had 18 offensive rebounds. In both Oregon games, ASU started slowly, although both times it recovered. The Ducks scored the first 15 points of their 85-78 victory, and Oregon State scored nine of the first 10 in its 78-76 victory in overtime.
We’re not in the tournament yet. Stuff happens every day. Something miraculous could happen. Something crazy could happen. We need more wins to solidify our position.
"We know we didn’t play our best," said forward Jonathan Gilling, who had 20 points and made 6 of 7 3-pointers against Oregon State. "We showed some heart. It was just some bad starts. we can’t have that happen again. That’s something we have to address."
Guard Jermaine Marshall, instrumental in the victories over Arizona and California, took his third injection of pain medicine to help a balky knee on Sunday, and it remains to be seen how his knee will respond to what could be as many as three consecutive games. He had two points against the College of Charleston in the second of back-to-back games in the Wooden Legacy.
Marshall has five 20-point games since his late 3-pointer sparked an overtime victory at Cal on Jan. 29, but he also has scored seven or fewer points three times. He had 16 points against Oregon and five against Oregon State, and his presence is a much-needed option when Carson penetrates.
"He has a big heart and shows a lot of courage, dealing with his knees the way he does," coach Herb Sendek said. "Hopefully he’ll respond well and be ready to go."