Sun Devils focus on Utah, tune out big picture

TEMPE, Ariz. – Do not tell coach Herb Sendek that Arizona State is playing a last-place team in Utah on Wednesday. He is not buying it.

“I don’t know if there is any such thing as top and bottom” in the Pac-12, Sendek said.

“The difference between teams in our league depends on that given moment more than that given night.”

Arizona State (18-6, 7-4) will take the first step in its recovery from a home loss to Stanford on Saturday against the Utes (10-13, 2-9) on Wednesday night – ASU’s first Wednesday conference game of the season – before playing at Colorado on Saturday night.

The Sun Devils are alone in fourth place in the jumbled conference race, one game behind tri-leaders Arizona, Oregon, and UCLA, and one ahead of Colorado, Stanford, California and USC. If they are to make their first NCAA tournament since the James Harden group in 2009, they almost certainly must inflict some damage on that road. Either that, or win the Pac-12 postseason tournament for the league’s automatic berth. Arizona State plays five of its final seven games on the road, with UCLA and Arizona among them.

As was the case last week, players said they are aware of the big picture but are deliberately tuning it out.

“We know what’s at stake and what we are capable of,” said forward Carrick Felix, who joins Stanford’s Dwight Powell as one of two players in conference’s top 12 in both scoring and rebounding. “We know we have the opportunity to make the NCAA tournament, but we’re just trying to take it every day and make sure we win the next game, I think that is going to be huge for us coming down the stretch, not thinking about the future but just worrying about the present.”

 “We want to make sure we stay in the present, because if we don’t take care of now, there won’t be a future.”

Sendek, for his part, said he has not spent “a nano-second” thinking about an NCAA berth.

“It’s an illusion, anyway, because it changes every hour. It changes with every game, and it will continue to do so,” he said. “With each result from around the country, someone new will be in and someone new will be out.”

Arizona State can take the memories of a conference-opening home sweep against Utah and Colorado the first week of January with them, but things have changed so much since then that Felix’s inhaler – he has asthma, and the altitude can play havoc on his breathing – will be a much more useful carry-on.

In the Utah victory on Jan. 3, Jahii Carson made a 3-pointer with 1:01 remaining to force overtime, and the Sun Devils survived three shots in the paint in the final 12 seconds for a 55-54 victory. ASU then overcame a 13-point first-half deficit to pull away for a 65-56 victory over Colorado later in the week.

“It definitely gives us some confidence, but at the same time you never know,” Felix said. “You don’t want to go into these games overly confident. You want to go in just with the mindset that it is going to be a 40-minute game. That’s the most important thing, to not shun away from ‘every minute counts.’”

Carson (18.1 points) is third in scoring and fourth in assists (4.5) in Pac-12 play, and he is among the top candidates for player of the year entering the final month.  Felix is averaging 14.2 points and 8.5 rebounds. Carson has stepped up his game on the road in conference play, when he has become more of a scorer than a facilitator. He is averaging 24.3 points a game with 15 assists and five turnovers in ASU’s four road games at the Oregon and Washington schools.

ASU leads the Pac-12 in field-goal percentage (44.6) and is last in free-throw percentage (60.5). Its free-throw percentage ranks 329th nationally of 345 Division I teams.

Utah has the worst overall record in the league and is tied with Washington State and Oregon State for 10th place in the standings, but its two victories were at Washington, a place Arizona State could not win, and at home against Colorado. Freshman point guard Brandon Taylor has added a spark since he joined the starting lineup two weeks ago.

“He has a lot of moxie to him. I think he is going to be a good leader,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said.

At Colorado, it will be interesting to see how the cat-and-mouse game between Carson and the Buffaloes’ active defense unfolds. Colorado limited Carson to five points (one field goal) and three assists in 38 minutes at Wells Fargo Arena on Jan. 6 by strongly hedging ASU’s high-post screens. The Buffaloes sent the defender who was being screened into Carson’s path, a move that kept ASU’s penetration to a minimum. Carson had four field goal attempts that game.

Arizona State lost both legs of this trip last season by a combined 36 points, but this team is much more capable. The 64-43 loss at Utah on Jan. 21, 2012, is where the transformation of big man Jordan Bachynski began, and he continues to lead the league in blocked shots this season, although he has not made his presence felt as much recently.

Utah and Colorado are 4,226 and 5,430 feet above sea level, and the altitude can be a factor. Felix, Carson and Jonathan Gilling average at least 37 minutes a game, which could present a challenge.

“I don’t know that you can reinvent your team. We’ll see how it goes,” Sendek said.

Said Felix: “We’ll have two days off, which is good, because I think it will help us get our legs back for the Saturday game.”