Harden gone, but Arizona State stays cool

I won’t be the only one who asks Arizona State coach Herb Sendek how he’ll deal with trying to fill the void left by the loss of star James Harden — the No. 3 pick in June’s NBA Draft.

“Don’t forget about Jeff,” he says.

In essence, Sendek and ASU lost a pair of first-rounders off the 25-win team a year ago that became just the second one in the past 13 seasons to go dancing in March.

After Harden, big man Jeff Pendergraph was selected with the first pick in the second round.

Most prognosticators will toss the Sun Devils toward the bottom of a watered-down Pac-10 this season — and they have every reason to do so.

But don’t expect Arizona State to stay down for long.

This isn’t like the old days in Tempe.

Sendek, one of the few big-name coaches to taste success and remain at his school from the coaching carousel class of 2006, is able to sell more than just playing time.

“That was perhaps the only thing we had when I got here,” Sendek said. “That and ourselves.”

Remember, this was the same guy who got a raw deal back at N.C. State, where he won more ACC games in his final five seasons than any other team not named Duke. He took over a program in Raleigh that was in a similar state to the one he inherited in the desert three years ago.

N.C. State never finished higher than seventh in the league in Les Robinson’s final five seasons (he went to the NCAA in his first season). Arizona State’s program had been to the NCAA tournament in 2003 but won 10 games the next season and 11 the season before Sendek took the reins.

His first season wasn’t pretty. He had to start three true freshmen from the West Coast — none of whom had a single Pac-10 scholarship offer.

That team won eight games overall and just a pair in the Pac-10.

Then came The Savior in Harden.

Harden was exactly what Sendek needed in order to get the program respect. The Sun Devils were the last team left out of the Big Dance in his freshman season before winning 25 games and reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament last season.

Now, Sendek and his staff have something to sell.

“When I talk to a recruit, if I spent 20 minutes on the phone with him, 12 of them are probably talking about James,” Arizona State associate head coach Dedrique Taylor said.

“When I talk to a recruit, if I spent 20 minutes on the phone with him, 12 of them are probably talking about James.”
&#151 Dedrique Taylor, associate head coach

“Kids are infatuated with James,” said fellow Sun Devils assistant Scott Pera, who also coached Harden in high school.

Harden and the recent success have allowed ASU to get in the mix with a handful of top 100 kids — C.J. Leslie, Carson Desrosiers (he has the Sun Devils in his final three), Tony Mitchell and Keala King — something that couldn’t be said during the Rob Evans regime.

But the sales pitch doesn’t end with Harden. Sendek also did a nice job developing Pendergraph into a legit NBA big man — and also has taken Derek Glasser, who was slated to walk on at USC, and turned him into one of the league’s top point guards.

Then there’s the new practice facility.

“This definitely isn’t the same program when I first got to ASU,” Glasser said. “Back then, it was basically a WCC program — except for the fact that we played better teams.”

“Now, we’ve gotten some respect. We’ve raised the standards, and the culture has changed.”

Even though two guys who combined to average nearly 35 points and 14 rebounds will be drawing paychecks, Glasser sounds confident the program won’t return to obscurity.

“A lot of people are throwing us back down in the gutters,” Glasser said. “But the guys that are here, which is everyone except for James and Jeff, know how to win. We’ve proven it to ourselves.”

The starting lineup is a far cry from the one that consisted of an unproven Glasser, Christian Polk (now at UTEP) and Jerren Shipp (2.7 points last season) in Sendek’s first season with the Sun Devils.

Glasser is as healthy as he has ever been and will play alongside Ty Abbott, who has started 65 games over the past two seasons, in the backcourt. Rihards Kuksiks is one of the nation’s top perimeter shooters, and the Sun Devils are hoping former Duke big man Eric Boateng is ready for a breakthrough now that he’ll get extensive minutes with the loss of Pendergraph.

“His role will be different,” Sendek said of the 6-foot-10 Englishman.

“He’s going to be a big reason why we’re successful this year,” Glasser said. “There were some days where he ate Jeff up in practice last year.”

But there were also plenty in which Boateng was eaten up.

Sendek is a Carnegie Mellon grad who is plenty smart enough to understand his program will take a hit this season with the loss of his two top players.

But Harden’s loss is also Sendek’s gain.

“Now, it’s different,” Sendek said.

That’s true. Now, it’s not uncool to go to ASU.