Arizona State enters Pac-12 tourney on upswing
TEMPE, Ariz. — Since its mid-January remake, Arizona State has made great strides. With freshman Tra Holder acclimating himself at point guard and transfer Savon Goodman finding a niche inside, only two teams — Arizona and Oregon — have a better league record over the last two months.
The Sun Devils enter the Pac-12 tournament feeling good.
"I don’t see the season being close to over," said forward Shaquielle McKissic.
The Sun Devils (17-14, 9-9) have won nine of their last 14 games entering a first-round Pac-12 tournament game against USC at the Las Vegas MGM Grand Garden Arena on Wednesday afternoon (2:30 p.m.).
"It’s a new beginning," ASU coach Herb Sendek said.
The first game of the Sun Devils’ restart came in a 78-72 victory over Colorado on Jan. 17. Holder was making his second start in his return to the starting lineup, following an experiment with off guard Gerry Blakes at point.
With Goodman settling in as part of a two-bigs frontline with center Eric Jacobsen, and shooters Jonathan Gilling and Bo Barnes coming off the bench, the Sun Devils found a rotation they could not only live with but also thrive.
The improvement has been team-wide. The Sun Devils have a plus-3.4 rebounding edge in the last 14 games and are shooting 44.7 percent from the floor. Holder is averaging 10.1 points a game, and Goodman is averaging 11.4 points and 7.3 rebounds.
"I don’t know that I’ve ever been a part of a team that improved more over the course of a season," Sendek said. "We’ve had some individuals that have improved tremendously. And as a group, we are much better than we were at the beginning of January."
Goodman credits the Sun Devils’ attention to detail, especially on defense.
"This is the most connected we’ve been defensively," Goodman said. "We’ve been helping. Filling in weak side. Our transition defense has been much better. Teams haven’t been killing us in transition. Teams haven’t been killing us on the boards.
"If you are not willing to sacrifice for your team in getting those 50-50 balls, making those dives, sprinting back on defense even though your man doesn’t have the ball in transition, you are not going to win. I think everyone is on the same level right now, connected."
Sendek cautioned not to consider previous success an insurance policy against future matchups, but the Sun Devils have beaten every team on its side of the bracket.
ASU beat USC (11-19, 3-15) in their only meeting this season, recovering from a 10-point deficit with 10 minutes remaining at Wells Fargo Arena before Holder hit a game-trying 3-pointer with 2:02 left and Gilling made a 3 on the next offensive possession. Three free throws by Holder put the game out of reach. USC played without leading scorer guard Katin Reinhardt, who was sent home before the game for disciplinary reasons.
The Sun Devils would play UCLA in the quarterfinals, and they beat the Bruins 68-66 at home on Feb. 18. Several faux NCAA bracket projections have the UCLA out of the NCAA tournament entering conference tournaments, and it remains to be seen if that would be any factor in the Bruins’ sense of urgency.
"It’s an exciting time of the year, to slide onto a bigger stage with even brighter lights, because America now turns to March Madness," Sendek said. "Everybody is going to be watching, from sea to shining sea. Everybody is picking up their game. Everybody has a sense of a new beginning and a rebirth. Every March, we see some amazing things happen."
Arizona State is prepared to amaze.
"I feel great about our team spirit and our energy right now," Goodman said.