What follows is a little Q&A on the pressing questions I had about tomorrow night's matchup. You can find my answers to his questions here.
Despite UW's surge to the top of the standings, I maintain that ASU is still the best team in the Pac-10. Convince me I'm right.
House of Sparky: ASU has the best player in the country (in my professional homer opinion), James Harden himself. Harden offers up 22 points a game, shooting 40% from beyond the arc and dropping 4.2 dimes a contest. His 5.7 rebounds aren't anything to sneeze at either. ASU also features a stifling 2-3 zone defense, and has seen improved play from its supporting cast of Rihards Kuksiks (10.6 PPG, 48.6% from 3) and Derek Glasser (7.1 ppg, 5.1 apg, 42.6% from 3).
This team quickly went from an inexperienced bunch to a well-developed squad in just a span of 3 years. A lot of this has to do with the consistent play of Jeff Pendergraph, who has anchored this team since the final act of the Rob Evans era in 2005-2006. Sure, everyone plays a big role in this team's success, but remove James Harden and you are looking at a pretty mediocre basketball team.
Harden was very good last year, but he's flat out amazing this year. What's been the difference in his game that's transformed him into a near lock for first team All-American?
James has shown an increased ability to take over games singlehandedly. His talent was always there, but it has been coaxed out by the coaching staff and his own fiery demeanor. The Pac-10 lost a lot of talent to last year's NBA draft, and I think the experience Harden gained last year has paid dividends for this season.
In the UCLA game, Harden looked nearly possessed after apparently being elbowed in the face. His play down the stretch took UCLA by surprise, and in the final 8 minutes of regulation, the Bruins failed to score a single point. His defensive tenacity has been astounding and he is looking for his shot in better situations. His game evolved at some point between midseason 2007-2008 and the beginning of Pac-10 play in 2008-2009.
To be honest, he is outplaying all of my wildest fantasies. For ASU basketball, this may be as good as it will ever get in terms of singular, game-changing talent. I want to liken him to Scottie Pippen, but a big part of me believes he wouldn't be the sidekick in the NBA; rather he would be the go-to guy.
How does a team even think about containing Harden? Is there a chance anyone will duplicate Daniel Hackett's defensive gem the rest of the year?
Two words: double team. Force Kuksiks, Glasser, and Ty Abbott to take a lot of shots. Play clean, solid defense. Don't give him any extra motivation to take over the game. He is an amazing talent, but he can be shut down if you are unwilling to let him beat you. Leaving it up to the rest of the team to win the game can be beneficial to the Cougars.
We know about Harden, and we also know about Jeff Pendergraph. But who's the guy we haven't heard of who could potentially do some damage Thursday night?
I've been mentioning him a lot in this: Derek Glasser. A teammate of Harden's at Artesia High in California, Glasser came out to ASU a year before Harden, and many believe he was a huge influence on Harden's eventual commitment to be a Sun Devil.
Glasser's game has greatly improved since the day he first set foot on campus. He is scoring more points, shooting better in every aspect (especially from 3, where he has improved from 31.5% in 2007-2008 to 42.6% this year), and distributing the ball nicely. He has found an on-court friend in Jeff Pendergraph, and they often hook up for alley oop jams.
With his improved 3PT shooting, he is much more valuable to the Sun Devils than he has ever been before, especially with Ty Abbott struggling so much this season (Abbott shot 35.3% from 3 last year, and this season it is down to 24.7%).
Herb Sendek was more or less run out of North Carolina State, but I'm guessing you guys are pretty happy to have him at this point. How do Sun Devils' fans view the job he's done in Tempe?
It is clear to the Sun Devil faithful that Herb Sendek was a gift from the basketball gods. Sendek is capable of landing big recruits (look no further than James Harden) and has a defensive attitude that is readily instilled in his team. The boys seem to buy into the mantra of defense and intensity. It's difficult to find much fault in his performance so far as our coach, but he has at times played Harden too much in games where the end result was already decided (see last week's game against Arizona).
The Sun Devil fans can't wait to see the next step forward for this program, whether that is in March 2009 or a few years down the road. But for once, it is not impossible to imagine ASU being the eminent basketball program in the southwest for years to come.
Give us the blueprint for beating the Sun Devils.
Did Tony Bennett send you?
Seriously, ASU can be beat. The first step is getting Jeff Pendergraph into foul trouble. We are paper thin in terms of size. Eric Boateng, our backup center, just plain sucks. With Pendergraph on the bench, the zone can be attacked by Baynes.
Once this objective is complete, Harden now feels the increased pressure of scoring the lion's share of points for ASU. Give him no room to make anything happen. Force Jerren Shipp and Jamelle McMillan to shoot. Pressure Derek Glasser in the backcourt. Defensive intensity will help you. Rotate your athletic players in a lot and ask them to go as hard as they can for short bursts. This is a hockey tactic that will serve you well.
Finally, break the zone from the inside. Make your 3's, and it will cause all kinds of havoc for the Devils. Stay away from shooting 30 from downtown, but make sure you are taking open shots. This is really all you can do to beat the Devils.