TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) -In another milestone on the road to respectability, Arizona State is back in The Associated Press' Top 25 for the first time since 1995.
The Sun Devils (13-2, 3-0 Pac-10) broke in at No. 22 in the latest poll on Monday.
``It means a lot,'' junior forward Jeff Pendergraph said before an afternoon practice at Wells Fargo Arena. ``We're happy with it. It's definitely a nice little sign of recognition for all the hard work we've been going through.''
The ranking underscores the progress the Sun Devils have made since coach Herb Sendek arrived from North Carolina State in the spring of 2006. But the typically cautious Sendek wasn't ready to celebrate his team's new poll position.
``We'll put it in its proper place,'' Sendek said. ``It's a recognition, in some form, that we're making progress. But at the same time, it really is a snapshot for this moment in time.''
A lot of time has passed since ASU's most recent ranking. The Sun Devils were No. 16 on March 13, 1995.
A Top 25 ranking seemed unfathomable a year ago, when the Sun Devils went 8-22 and lost a school-record 15 straight games. And it still seemed unlikely when ASU opened this year by falling behind 20-0 on its way to a 77-54 loss to Illinois in Maui.
But a forgiving schedule and a rapidly maturing group of young players have helped turn the Sun Devils around.
``Even though we're ranked, we're still not satisfied with it,'' Pendergraph said. ``We still want to get better. We still have a lot of work to do before we're where we want to be.''
The team has quickly reinvented itself with the addition of freshman guard James Harden, the first McDonald's All-American to sign with ASU out of high school since 1984.
The 18-year-old Harden, the Pac-10's youngest player, leads ASU in scoring (18.2 points per game) and minutes (31.9 per game). He is shooting 54.9 percent from the floor and 78.8 percent from the foul line.
Harden is averaging 23.3 points, 7 rebounds and 38.8 minutes per game in conference play.
ASU also relies heavily on two other freshman - guards Jamelle McMillan and Ty Abbott - and sophomores Jerren Shipp and Derek Glasser.
The youngsters have benefited from a home-cooked schedule. ASU is 11-0 at home, with many of the wins coming over teams from marginal conferences.
The Sun Devils' most notable victories have come over then-No. 17 Xavier, Oregon and Arizona, which played without leading scorer Jerryd Bayless.
The Sun Devils have played only one road game - a 62-47 loss at Nebraska on Dec. 2.
They've won nine straight since then but haven't left Wells Fargo Arena.
That will change Thursday night, when the Sun Devils open a Northern California trip at California. ASU visits Stanford two nights later.
The trip launches a critical three-week stretch that could determine whether Arizona State contends for its first NCAA tournament berth since 2003.
After returning from the Bay Area, ASU plays host to Washington and No. 8 Washington State. Then it goes to Los Angeles for games against No. 4 UCLA and USC before closing the stretch with a trip to Tucson, where the Sun Devils have one victory since 1983.
That's five out of seven road games against teams with a combined record of 61-19.
Pendergraph said he expects his young teammates to respond to the challenge.
``Going on the road there is going to be really difficult with our young guys,'' Pendergraph said. ``The maturation thing, we're not going to know until game time comes. But I have confidence in them that they're going to know what's going on.''
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