Getting to Know the Sun Devils

As Syracuse gets ready to take on Arizona State in the second round of the NCAA tournament, I exchanged in some Q&A with Justin from the excellent ASU blog, Pitchfork Nation. His answers are below, and my answers to his questions are here. Enjoy.

James Harden is being touted as a top 5 pick in the NBA Draft. Can you break down his game for us?

James Harden is certainly a unique talent; something that fans in Tempe have never seen before and may never see again, so we’re definitely savoring every minute of The Super Soph/The Beard (as we call him on PFN) until he most likely takes off for the draft after this season.

The best way to describe Harden is “complete” but with just a little bit of immaturity still in his game. James uses a mixture of speed and dexterity to extend defenses. He’s deceptively fast and can go from zero to “by you” before you can blink, making him very dangerous in the transition game. For an example of how well he moves off defensive rebounds, take a look at the game film from the ASU/Washington Pac-10 Semifinal. When you let him get loose, he becomes a deadly slasher and gets to the tin in no time. The one drawback of that is, and it goes back to some of his immaturity, he tends to get a little bit out of control and is prone to taking offensive fouls when he gets overexcited. He did it with less than a minute to play against USC, a play that most likely cost Arizona State a conference championship.

Pac-10 POY James Harden will try to get the Sun Devils past Syracuse in the second round on Sunday.

Pac-10 POY James Harden will try to get the Sun Devils past Syracuse in the second round on Sunday.

Harden can also be a very deadly shooter. His range is about 19-20 feet. However, as you probably noticed against Temple, he tends to be hesitant to shoot in the early stages of games when his first few attempts don’t fall. It’s something that shocks the hell out of every announcer and journalist that doesn’t follow ASU regularly, but we all know not to worry. Harden is smart enough to know that forcing shots isn’t going to help his team, so whenever he can, he’ll force the ball down low to Jeff Pendergraph or act as a decoy to open up guys like Derek Glasser and Ty Abbott.

You twice beat UCLA and had a win over Washington in the Pac-10 tournament. How did the rest of the Pac-10 slate go? Did ASU exceed or fail to meet expectations?

It was a very, very strange Pac-10 season for ASU. It went from incredible to frustrating to incredible to incredibly frustrating on a week to week basis almost. The Devils started off with a frustratingly regular 3-2 record after five games, then went to USC and got run up and down the floor by DeMar DeRozan. That game was the only one in Harden’s career thus far in which he was held without a field goal. It would have been panic button time in Tempe had it not been for an unreal defensive performance (1 FG allowed in the final 13+ minutes) that allowed ASU to get their first win at UCLA in six seasons.

The next week, ASU went down to Tucson and took an unprecedented 2nd straight win over Tucson in a game where the first team to 40 literally won. It really looked like we were on the right track until the Washington schools came to Tempe and shot the lights out. The losses to UW and WSU really exposed Herb Sendek’s matchup zone and provided a blueprint to how to beat ASU: hit your outside shots and play in-your-face defense. They rebounded with two nice wins on the road at the Oregon schools and then came home to sweep the most pivotal three-game stretch for the program in 20 seasons: three straight wins over UCLA, USC and Arizona at home sent the Devils to the top of the standings.

Then came a stretch of basketball that would crush a weak minded team: back to back overtime losses in Washington and at Washington State and then a miserable shooting performance at home against lowly Stanford sent the Devils spiraling. Luckily, a strong Senior Day win over Cal paced the Sun Devils into their run to the Pac-10 title game.

Harden struggled in the first round against Temple, but Pendergraph and Glasser stepped it up. How important is it for Harden to pick up the pace, or can the other players carry the team on his off nights?

It’s not the biggest concern, but as the Tournament wears on, they’ll definitely need him because Derek Glasser isn’t going to score 22 again like he did today. Harden is surrounded by a tremendous supporting cast of Pendergraph, Glasser, Ty Abbott and Rihards Kuksiks, all who can put the ball in the hole with the best of them. As I mentioned earlier, Harden knows to adjust his own game when he’s not hitting from the outside, and it’s up to those four to pick up the slack. However, the Sun Devils have not played a team this season as rangey and athletic as Syracuse, so as if this wasn’t already going to be a true test, it’s going to be even more difficult for Arizona State to win if Harden doesn’t score.

Who are the “wild-card” players that Syracuse should look out for?

If Ty Abbott hits his first shot of the game, look out. Abbott is one of the most schizo shooters in America…he either hits everything or nothing at all. Earlier this year, he went on about an 0-35 shooting slump during the early stages of the Pac-10 season. Then, inexplicably, he almost couldn’t miss in the conference tournament. I feel like Abbott, against that stingy Jim Boeheim zone, will be a key cog for Arizona State if they want to pull the minor upset.

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