Sun Devils squeeze extra effort out of starters

TEMPE, Ariz. — Jahii Carson met reporters in a hallway at the Arizona State practice facility late Tuesday afternoon in a gray sweat shirt, comfy workout pants and bare feet.

Not to worry. Carson had just come from a post-practice session in the Sun Devils’ ice tub, one of the ways ASU is attempting to mitigate the heavy workload for Carson and ASU’s 40-Minute Men this season.

Carrick Felix, Carson and Jonathan Gilling rank 1-2-3 in minutes played in Pac-12 Conference games. Keeping its top talent on the floor is a major reason that ASU (16-4, 5-2) is tied for second place in the loss column as the conference season hits the midway point this weekend. The Sun Devils wrap up the first half with games at Washington State on Thursday night and Washington on Saturday.

“Our guys have been warriors,” ASU coach Herb Sendek said.

“I like playing,” Carson said simply.

Felix averages 39.86 minutes a game in Pac-12 play in his breakout senior season, ranking No. 6 in NCAA Division I. If there has been fatigue, Felix has camouflaged it well. He has been named the league player of the week three times, including last week. He played 83 minutes in victories over USC and UCLA, the first in overtime, and sat out for a total of 109 seconds.

Showing that vigilance never rests, Felix broke from his own end to block an attempted layup by Jordan Adams with two seconds remaining in Saturday’s 78-60 victory over UCLA — after Adams’ ill-advised strip of the ball as the final seconds ticked off.

Carson (39.14) ranks No. 10 in the nation and is on pace to break James Harden’s record for average minutes by an ASU freshman. Gilling (38.71) ranks 14th. ASU did not have a lot of experienced depth entering the season, and the suspension of guard Chris Colvin for the last three games made playing the regulars even more of a necessity, but it is not something Sendek frets about.

“You never know how things are going to unfold, but it’s the place we are in right now,” Sendek said. “There is no sense making too much of it. Those guys are young and in good shape.”

Syracuse is the only other major program with as many as two players in the top 20 for minutes played this season. The workload certainly has not seemed burdensome for ASU. Carson is sixth in the Pac-12 with a 16.4 scoring average and second in assists (5.0) in league games. Felix is ninth in scoring (15.9) and third in rebounding (9.6), making him the only player in the top 10 in those two categories. He also has four double-doubles in seven Pac-12 games.

Carson and Gilling are in the top five in assist-to-turnover ratio. Both played 81 minutes against the L.A. schools, when Gilling had 20 points, 23 rebounds and 14 assists, including a career-high eight assists against UCLA.

Those three are not alone. With Colvin out, shooting guard Evan Gordon played 123 of the 125 minutes available the last three games, and he had 40 points in 83 minutes against the L.A. schools. Gordon is averaging 32.1 minutes per conference game, and center Jordan Bachynski is at 29.3.

The only game in which the lack of depth was noticeable was in a 71-54 loss to Arizona, a two-point game until Carson got into foul trouble midway through the second half.

“It is certainly not a science, and you have to do it by feel,” Sendek said. “There are a lot of variables, from everything to how we practice to what is happening in a given game.”

ASU has reshaped its practices this season, players said, with the focus less on physical work and more on mental preparation for the next opponent, breaking down offensive and defensive tendencies.

“I think coach Sendek is influenced by the NBA guys (new assistants Eric Musselman and Larry Greer), because I don’t think they go really hard at their practice in the NBA during the season,” said Gilling, a sophomore forward from Denmark. “It is a little easier this year than last year, but don’t tell him.”

Added Carson: “For the most part, (coach) tries to cut it down to us getting a lot of skill and development instead of just pounding in practice. I think it helps the guys who play a lot of minutes.”

At the same time, the Sun Devils are reaping the benefits of a summer spent doing conditioning work and spending hour after hour in the gym.

“I try to be in the best shape I can, so I can at least stay out there and make at least 39.9 minutes out of the 40 good,” Carson said. “I pace myself to know when the timeouts are coming, and coach Herb knows when to give us blows and give us rest.

“Sometimes I don’t think I’m tired, but he sees there are times when I will take not the shot I was supposed to on offense or miss a defensive assignment, and he’ll give me a blow.”

Sendek also uses the designated media timeouts to give his starters more rest. He often removes Carson, Felix and Gilling just before the scheduled timeouts that occur at the first stoppage of play with less than 16 minutes, less than 12 minutes, less than eight minutes and less than four minutes remaining in each half.

Felix received extra rest during the media timeout with 11:53 left in the first half against USC, and he played the final 36 minutes without a break. The only time he left the UCLA game was at a media timeout, too.  

“It’s definitely tough being out there the whole time, but I’ve got the lungs for it. I’m young,” said Felix, 22, with a laugh. “It’s definitely good to be able stay out on the court the whole time and be a leader and be an example for my guys out on the court, however long I play.

“But if I play two minutes, three minutes, 20 minutes, 40 minutes, I am go out there and give it all I got.”

It could be considered a badge of honor.

“If you are playing the whole game, that means your coach does not want you off the floor,” Carson said. “I take that as a compliment and try to continue to make him let me on the floor. If my minutes start to decrease, that means he is not starting to be as comfortable with me on the court.”