TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona State basketball team trod the Great Wall of China and met 7-foot-6 local legend Yao Ming, not to be confused as the same thing. The Sun Devils saw the Forbidden City and fought the traffic in 24 million-plus populated Shanghai. They were treated like rock stars, not challenged by tanks, when they visited Tiananmen Square.
The cultural takeaways of the recent 11-day trek to China were immense, coach Herb Sendek said, as the team experienced the convergence of ancient and modern in the most populous country in the world.
“Most significantly, it was the ability to experience all that, to see that, to touch it, to feel it,” Sendek said. “As it relates to basketball, our guys really bonded, as we would have hoped. You don’t have a cell phone attached to your fingers the whole time. I was very proud of them. Nobody whined. Nobody complained.”
As might have been expected, the Sun Devils had little trouble winning their three games against Chinese college and pro teams, even the one Jahii Carson missed with a slight concussion suffered in practice before the team left. He is fine now, Sendek said.
But the games did give Sendek and his staff a chance to get a read on the three newcomers who were along for the 38 bus rides, five plane flights and five separate hotel stays: Corona del Sol High redshirt freshman Calaen Robinson and true freshmen Egor Koulechov and Chance Murray. Koulechov is 6-foot-5, the other two 6-2.
“It was good for our new players, and it was good for us to see our new players,” Sendek said. “I was really impressed with our freshman class. I thought those guys really showed well. I was tremendously encouraged by what I saw from those three men.”
Koulechov, a native of Russia who played high school basketball in Florida, appears to be more of a wing player, while Robinson and Murray of Los Angeles Price High are candidates for the backup point guard spot.
Of Koulechov and Price, Sendek said: “Physically they are advanced. They are not your average freshmen.”
With all-Pac-12 point guard Carson, starting center Jordan Bachynski and forward Jonathan Gilling returning and Penn State transfer off guard Jermaine Marshall in school after completing his degree work over the summer, ASU had the look of a top conference contender even before the trip.
Marshall reiterated Tuesday that the chance to play with co-Pac-12 freshman of the year Carson was a big factor in his decision to play his final season here. His experience as a scorer in the rugged Big Ten can only help a team whose only major loss is small forward Carrick Felix. ASU also will look to Marshall for leadership.
“This is my fifth year now, so I think I have a pretty good understanding of the game,” Marshall said.
Felix was used mainly at the small forward spot the last two years, but Sendek said position labels will have less meaning this season. He said the Sun Devils expect to play even faster than last year, when Carson averaged 18.5 points a game and the team averaged 71.8 points, fourth-most in the Pac-12, respectively. Sendek made it sound as if ASU might extend the court on defense, too.
“As you look at our team, it’s going to be really hard to split hairs with positions,” he said. “We have a number of guys who are very versatile, and it will almost be self-limiting for us to go and try to decipher what position guys are. We’re going to have a lot of flexibility, and the way we are playing is going to allow us to play a lot of different combinations.”
“I would think we are gong to be able to pick it up even more on both ends of the floor because of the depth.”
Like Marshall, incoming transfer small forward 6-5 Shaquielle McKissic is in school after getting his associate’s degree over the summer. Six-five Michigan State transfer Brandon Kearney also has gained his eligibility after redshirting last season, Sendek said.
ASU will begin practice Sept. 30 and has scheduled the Maroon-Gold game for Oct. 11. It opens the season Nov. 8 against Maryland-Baltimore County.