Defense-minded Sun Devils take early Pac-10 lead
Midway through his 8-22 debut season at Arizona State, Herb Sendek figured it was time to try something new.
How about a matchup zone defense? It was a big change for a coach raised on man-to-man principles.
``If you would have told me when I came here we'd end up playing zone, I would have said, 'No, that's not ever going to happen.' And then it did,'' Sendek said on Tuesday. ``It happened the first year because we were desperate, and it was a complete shot in the dark.''
Now opponents appear to be shooting in the dark.
Three years after Sendek's brainstorm, the Sun Devils have honed the zone and become the nation's stingiest scoring defense, conceding 54.68 points per game. Defense is the biggest reason the Sun Devils (14-5, 4-2 Pac-10) have won four straight and vaulted atop the Pac-10.
Many observers expected Arizona State to slip after losing James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph to the NBA; media assigned to the conference picked the Sun Devils seventh in a preseason poll. But ASU is making up for its lack of scoring punch on the defensive end of the floor, where opposing teams often feel as if they've wandered into lion country.
The Sun Devils have limited eight teams to season-low outputs, including Duke, which averages 84.6 points per game but scored only 64 in a victory over ASU on Nov. 25 in New York.
``We don't have a guy who can score 30 and take over the game offensively like we did last year with James and Jeff,'' senior point guard Derek Glasser said. ``We're a different team. We have a different identity this year.''
Some reporters scoffed when Glasser, speaking on the team's media day, insisted that ASU could ``do what we did or more than last year'' - win 25 games and advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Midway through the season, Glasser's words seem prophetic.
``As a team, we knew in our locker room that we could be as good or better than that team, just because that team relied so much on James,'' Glasser said Tuesday. ``It's so hard to be a great team when you rely so much on one player, just because guys, when it's their turn in that game, they're not ready. Everybody's just sitting and watching James do his thing.
``This year, everybody has more of an attack mentality and (is) much more aggressive and much more confident,'' Glasser said.
The Pac-10 is so weak that every team can make a case for winning the regular-season championship - even USC, which has declared itself ineligible for the conference tournament as part of the self-imposed sanctions for violating NCAA rules involving former player O.J. Mayo.
The Sun Devils are the fifth team to lead the conference in the first three weeks, and the four teams tied for last place are only a game and a half off the pace.
Arizona State's next test comes on Saturday night, when archrival Arizona (9-9, 3-3) rolls in from Tucson. The Sun Devils have won five straight in the series, their longest streak in 27 years.
Last year, Arizona State limited Arizona to a season-low 47 points in one game. But the Wildcats aren't the only team that struggles to find open shots against ASU.
The Sun Devils' defense seems especially imposing in a conference filled with inexperienced players. Because the scheme is so difficult to simulate in practice, teams often appear lost when they confront ASU for the first time.
That explains how Washington, which averages a conference-high 80.7 points per game, mustered a season-low 51 points in a loss here on Jan. 8. Two days later, Washington State scored a season-low 46 points at ASU, 22 off its average.
``When we don't want to give up points, I feel like there's times when we can just shut a team down for 10, 15 minutes at a time if we really wanted to do that,'' guard Ty Abbott said.
Sendek isn't quite so sure. He sees his defense as a work in progress and insists that game films reveal its flaws, although he won't share them with reporters.
He also balks at suggestions that the matchup zone has become a fixture for his teams. Sendek values flexibility, and he tweaked his offense to give players more freedom midway through a dismal 47-37 loss at USC on Jan. 2.
``Certainly didn't expect to be playing (the zone) beyond our first year,'' Sendek said. ``Does that mean we're going to be playing it indefinitely into the future? Not necessarily.''
Sendek allowed a sly smile to creep across his face.
``Heck, I just changed my offense in January, midway through the season,'' he said. ``That shows you how flighty I can be. We might change our defense for this Saturday.''
Don't bet on it.
``As long as our whole team can continue to buy into this defensive mindset, we're going to be pretty good,'' Glasser said.