While Arizona slumps, Sun Devils earning wins and respectability Print
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Thursday, 10 January 2008 13:04
NCAAB Headline News


 TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) - It is too soon to declare a shift in Arizona's college hoops power structure.
But Arizona State's 64-59 overtime win over Arizona on Wednesday night provided evidence of two programs headed in different directions.
The Sun Devils (13-2) have won nine straight games and are 3-0 in the Pac-10 for the third time since becoming a conference member in 1978-79. The fast start has put ASU in the hunt for its first NCAA tournament berth since 2002.
Not bad for a team that went 8-22 and lost a school-record 15 straight games last year.
``Everything we're doing is uncharted territory,'' junior forward Jeff Pendergraph said. ``We're blazing a new trail for ASU. We're trying to put us on the map.''
Arizona (10-5, 1-2) may also be blazing a trail - in the opposite direction. The Wildcats have lost three of their last four games. And while there's a long way to go, they may be in danger of snapping their string of 23 straight NCAA tourney appearances, the longest active streak in the nation.
``We've got to regroup as a team and just bounce back,'' forward Chase Budinger said. ``We've just got to start winning games.''
The difference between the Sun Devils and the Wildcats may come down to two star freshmen.
ASU's James Harden is having a superb season. So was Arizona's Jerryd Bayless until he sprained his right knee. The Wildcats' leading scorer has missed four games, and the Wildcats are 1-3 with him on the bench.
The 18-year-old Harden is the Pac-10's youngest player. He leads ASU in scoring (17.6 per game) and minutes (31.0).
Harden's value was underscored in the dramatic overtime win in Wells Fargo Arena on Wednesday night. Limited to 1-of-6 shooting in the first half, he exploded for 22 of his 26 points after halftime and scored five of ASU's nine overtime points.
``The guy's going to be an NBA player and probably be a high draft pick this year, if I had to guess after having been in the league,'' Arizona coach Kevin O'Neill said. ``He can shoot, put it on the floor and get to the rim and the foul line.''
Harden has come a long way since his first game, when he scored six points in a 77-54 loss to Illinois in the Maui Invitational on Nov. 19. So have the Sun Devils.
``I think we're a much better team than that squad was,'' coach Herb Sendek said, referring to the team that he took to Hawaii. ``The train just keeps moving. Our guys have a much better understanding of our system.''
Sendek stresses defense, and this year the Sun Devils have played zone almost exclusively. They limited Oregon, the Pac-10's highest-scoring team, to 54 points in a 62-54 victory on Jan. 3.
Perhaps the biggest question about the Sun Devils is whether their newfound success will translate to the road. They've played only one true road game - a 62-47 loss at Nebraska on Dec. 2.
``Right now, we have 15 left and only six are at home,'' Sendek said. ``We're going to move forward and we've got to figure out how to be effective on the road.''
The tests will come quickly. ASU visits California on Jan. 17 and No. 23 Stanford two nights later. Six of the next 12 games are against ranked teams, and that stretch also includes a trip to Tucson, where the Sun Devils haven't won since 1995.
Pendergraph isn't worried about persuading skeptics who wonder if the Sun Devils' inexperience will catch up to them during the demanding Pac-10 schedule. ASU's young players have been able to mature quickly against a relatively weak nonconference schedule.
``You can say whatever you want,'' Pendergraph said. ``You can think it's a fluke or you can think that we've gotten lucky or whatever. But you guys can't deny that we're tough. When other teams play us, they're in for a battle.''
Every game seems like a battle for the Wildcats since Bayless got hurt.
His injury coincided with the end of a six-game win streak. During that stretch, it appeared as if the Wildcats were unfazed by coach Lute Olson's decision to extend his leave of absence through the end of the season, and by the later announcement that O'Neill would eventually take over when Olson retires.
``It's tough not having your full squad out there, but that can't be any explanation,'' Budinger said. ``I'm not going to make any excuses, saying that we're injured right now. We've just got to play better as a team towards the end of games. We've just got to really buckle down and control the tempo and control the game, especially on the road.''
Making matters worse, forward Bret Brielmaier injured his shoulder against Arizona State, and O'Neill said he'll be out ``for a while.'' Arizona was so shorthanded at ASU that Daniel Dillon played 44 minutes, 28 more than his average.
``I guess when it rains it pours a little bit,'' O'Neill said.
Arizona has little time to regroup. The Wildcats planned to leave Thursday for Houston, where they'll take on the Cougars on Saturday afternoon. Then they visit No. 23 Stanford and California next weekend.
If O'Neill is concerned, he's doing a good job of disguising his feelings.
``We're going to play better basketball as we go along,'' he said.
 

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