It had been a full week since Arizona State last hit the hardwood, and for Herb Sendek-coached teams in Tempe, that usually leads to favorable results. The Sun Devils entered the game 18-8 under Sendek over the last six seasons when given at least five full days to prepare for an opponent, and while they struggled initially out of the gate, ASU quickly found its stride as sophomore Jon Gilling, coming off a season-high 18 point performance against Texas Tech, led the offensive attack.
Gilling scored 11 of his 14 points in the first half, including 8 points in the game's opening minutes to get ASU started. In his last two games now, Gilling has made 10 0f his 20 three point shot attempts. The Sun Devils, who converted 14 three point baskets last Saturday against the Red Raiders, followed that up with 10 more against Coppin State, including seven in the first half to set the tone.
"I thought our guys played a good game today and we’ve had a good non-conference," said Head Coach Herb Sendek afterwards. "Obviously now, ready to turn the page to start PAC-12 play. For the most part, as we look back to the middle of November when we started, I think our guys have played good basketball and have steadily gotten better. So it’s been a good non-conference for us."
ASU used a 14-3 run to close out the opening half, taking an 11 point lead into the break while turning what was once a close contest into a one-sided affair.
Freshman point guard Jahii Carson led the way for the Sun Devils on Saturday, despite starting the game slowly. Carson, who entered the game averaging 17.9 points and 5.3 assists per game, came close to becoming the second Sun Devil to register a triple-double this season, after Jordan Bachynski reached that milestone on December 8th against Cal State Northridge. Carson finished with a team-high 15 points, to go along with season-high eight rebounds and seven assists on 6-12 shooting.
"He is a willing listener and learner," said Sendek of his talented floor general. "We spend time together talking one on one, watching tape, and he has been extremely receptive to coaching and teaching. He wants to learn, he wants to get better, and he really makes an effort to take what we’re talking about and apply it in the games. I really enjoy working with him from that standpoint as a teacher and a coach and that’s all you can ask for."
Swingman Carrick Felix, another one of the four Sun Devils to score in double figures on Saturday, helped pace the Sun Devil attack on both ends of the floor. Despite being under the weather, the senior still managed to chip in 11 points on 5-10 shooting to go along with six rebounds, a couple highlight reel worthy dunks and a LeBron James-like blocked shot on a transition lay-up attempt in the first half to energize the Sun Devils and the home crowd.
"He’s grown immeasurably; we don’t have a tape measure that stretches far enough," said Sendek. "Since the end of last season, he has transformed himself in every positive way. His energy and his effort and his brilliant play have really sustained us in so many ways."
"In the last two days, he has been battling an intestinal problem, and we all know how that can drain your energy," he added. "When you have that you don’t even want to get off the couch, let alone play basketball. Yet, he didn’t want to miss a second of yesterdays practice; he’d have none of it. He came today to our shoot around in a big hoody sweatshirt, trying to keep the chills away, and he played.
"I think that kind of effort, that kind of mindset, probably sums up pretty well what we’re talking about with respect to Carrick’s commitment and his heart."
The Sun Devils continued their efficient offensive play against Coppin State as they appear to be finding their rhythm at the right time, as conference play is slated to begin next week. The Sun Devils shot 47% from the field against the Eagles, but even more impressively was the all-around team play as ASU totaled 17 assists on their 25 made baskets. The Sun Devils also shot 8-10 from the free throw line, which had been a glaring weakness for the team throughout the non-conference schedule heading into the game.
"I think that’s one thing we can feel good about from the non-conference schedule, we really a good job of focusing on the game at hand," said Sendek on his team's efficient performance today. "We didn’t take anything for granted. We prepared and approached each and every game as if it was the most important game on our schedule. I was really pleased with our guys approach.
"Sometimes no matter how much you talk about it, as much as you emphasis it, as much as that should be the case, sometimes it doesn’t happen and it should happen," he continued. "I am really pleased with their approach. I think our guys have been excited about playing; they look forward to playing. I think they get a certain joy in playing right now. I think they look forward to coming to the gym, even if it’s for practice or for a game."
At 11-2, the upstart Sun Devils have already eclipsed their win total from last season and will now get ready for their first Pac-12 conference match-up of the year as Utah travels to Tempe on Wednesday. While the level of competition will surely become more difficult for Arizona State, the team has plenty to be optimistic about and looks forward to the challenge ahead and the chance to prove themselves and atone for last season's disappointment.
"Our non-conference record sort of gets set on a mantle, hopefully a lot of good lessons well learned, some good habits well formed, but in college basketball when you get into the conference, everything kind of gets reset, and then it happens again when you get into the conference tournament," Sendek remarked. "College basketball has three seasons within one."