Basketball Season Preview

Basketball Season Preview

Every once in a while, Arizona State positions itself nicely for a special season and this year appears to be one of those times. Having one of the country's best point guards, in Jahii Carson, gives ASU more than a fighting chance, and the cast of characters has formed one of the deepest teams Tempe has ever seen. Will it be enough to hear their name announced on Selection Sunday?

After just missing the NCAA Tournament last season, Jahii Carson left NBA dollars on the table in order to accomplish his goal of getting his team to the Big Dance. An intriguing recruiting class along with experienced starters and role players alike returning with another year under their belts, do exhibit much promise. Last but not least, ASU has one of the most experienced coaching staffs in the nation, boasting NBA experience, and now have a full year under their belt with this team.

For years now the Sun Devil nation has been clamoring for Arizona State to play at a faster pace. Fulfilling that desire was easier said than done with the personnel make up of the team, yet this year that wish will very much come true. The team's identity in that sense is still forming as we speak, as players work on ultimate conditioning level , as well as having a more selfless attitude than ever, since faster pace usually means fewer minutes for each of them on the hardwood.

Shortly after the culmination of last season, head coach Herb Sendek announced the 3-12-24 approach. The team will take no longer than three second to cross half court, find a quality shot within 12 seconds and practice with a NBA 24-second shot clock which is 11 seconds faster than the NCAA regulation shot clock.

As they gear up to the beginning of the season, the team still needs to prove that they can play at this fast pace laid out for them and naturally keep turnovers to a minimum, in a scheme that is prone for mishaps. The jury is still out on whether the team has fully adapted to this as one impressive pre-season scrimmage performance on the road at St. Mary's was negated quite a bit with a lowly display at home against San Francisco.

Another area of current concern is rebounding. Sendek quipped earlier this week that if Bachynski doesn't come up with a carom then he is probably the next likely person to achieve that feat. It's an area that is certainly stressed a lot in practice and the Sun Devil guards have been especially missing in action in this department. A player like McKissic, for example, who already reminds many of outgoing senior Carrick Felix, is someone who has the athleticism to get into the mix and contribute rebounding. For him and other first-year players, it's now become a matter of newcomers striving to become more complete players and settling into a specific niche.

Tied into rebounding is the matter of overall defensive effort. It's another aspect that could use some improvement especially in the communication and cohesiveness areas. Granted, having eight newcomers will cause the overall rate of team development to be slower than desired, yet their summer trip to China did help the team to be farther along at this juncture of the pre-season than they would be without the benefit of practices and competitive games in August.

Now we don't mean to paint a 100 percent bleak picture, because after all the team is in a relatively good place for being just days away from their season opener. Even free throw shooting is something that is poised to be an improved feature this season. We are merely just pointing out some of the issues that need to be worked on for a team that has high expectations this year. Players have generally responded to the challenges that have been put in front of them and have the desire to get better. Again, for newcomers, even those who played at the Division I level, it's still an adjustment process to the overall demands that are being placed on them.

Meet the Team

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Newcomers: Jermaine Marshall, Shaq McKissic, Brandan Kearney, Egor Koulechov, Sai Tummala, Calaen Robinson, Chance Murray, Richie Edwards

Losses: Carrick Felix, Evan Gordon, Ruslan Pateev, Chris Colvin, Kenny Martin

Projected Starters: Jahii Carson (18.5 PPG, 5.1 APG in 2012-13) – The expectations bestowed upon Carson before last season were absurd and all he did in response was turn in one of the best freshman campaigns in Pac-12 history. Now entering his second and what should be his final season with the Devils, Carson is being hailed as one of the nation's top players as he delayed his NBA dreams for one season in order to get ASU back to the NCAA Tournament.

The swagger that Carson has on the court is genuine, not manufactured. His game fully backs up that belief and his ceiling of potential is higher than some may think. His quickness and the ability to get where he wants on the floor are self evident for anyone who even watched him for just a few minutes last season. Where he stands to take his game to the next level is his improved outside shooting and new rules that will be enforced by officials this year which will prevent hand checking by defenders. He is a true floor general who will make his teammates better putting them in favorable situations to score, yet when he needs to take command and generate shots for himself he will do exercising good decision making and efficiency.

Carson is the unquestionable leader of the team and needless to say that ASU will go as far this local phenom from Mesa High School will take them.

Jermaine Marshall (15.3 PPG, 34% 3PT at Penn State) – After just one season in Tempe, Eric Gordon transferred to Indiana and left a huge hole in the Sun Devils' backcourt and irritated an already frustrated fan base. Then the lineup got an improbable, yet significant upgrade when Jermaine Marshall left Penn State and headed west to play his final season. Second on the team in scoring for the Nittany Lions, Marshall is a confident shooter that can hit from deep and also get to the line consistently. Marshall also led Penn State in steals and was third on the team in rebounding.

The national media has already hailed him as one of the best transfers in college basketball this year. But the Sun Devil nation will have to initially curb their enthusiasm over the guard for two reasons. First, it has been a trying pre-season for Marshall who suffered a knee injury and then had a long bout with valley fever. He has been fully practicing for just a couple of weeks now and his conditioning is naturally lacking.

Second, and this ties into the former point coming from slow methodical Big Ten style of play, how will it fit in the fast pace scheme ASU wishes to employ? The answer to that question mark could be significant for ASU's prospects this season. Marshall is expected to suit up and possibly start Friday's season opener, but as mentioned the expectations for the first handful or so games have to be in check until the guard gets better acclimated in all aspects.

Shaquielle McKissic (22.5 PPG, 9.9 RPG at Edmonds CC) – A prolific scorer at the junior college level, McKissic has been very impressive since joining the ranks in Tempe. With just one year of eligibility, McKissic is an experienced player with a physical frame (6-3 200) . He may just be a placeholder in the lineup until Kearney is eligible or he may be a focal point in the Sun Devil offense.

His roller coaster basketball career has been depicted in this great interview by Erik Pierson

but aside from being the best feel good story on the team, McKissic can ultimately be the steal of the 2013 recruiting class. With everything he went through in his personal life, his hunger to improve and succeed has been second to none and has been a constant display ever since arriving at ASU. The good news that his ceiling is high as well and as excited as we may be by his performance in November he still could be a much better player come March. Like many of his teammates he needs to be a better defender but with his athleticism and constructive mindset the road to achieving that feat may be smoother for him than for others.

Jonathan Gilling (9.7 PPG, 6.1 RPG) – Entering his second season as a starter, Gilling can do a lot of things really well on the basketball court. If anyone could be defined as the proverbial "glue" of the team, the junior from Denmark probably fits the bill. A gifted passer and sneaky-good rebounder, Gilling just needs to tighten up the shooting woes that have plagued him a year ago and if he does that, he can be one of the best weapons in the Pac-12. He's one of the most intelligent players on the Sun Devil squad who can stretch the floor and bring a lot of experience to the floor.

When he does shoot the ball consistently, he will draw a lot of defensive attention and open up more opportunities for his teammates. May be second only to Carson in the leadership department but needs to be more vocal in that role.

Jordan Bachynski (9.8 PPG, 3.4 BPG)– After two years away from the sport on a Mission and two years getting inconsistent playing time, the 7-2 250-pound Bachynski turned the corner in a huge way in his junior season averaging nearly 10 points per game and establishing himself as one of the premier shot-blockers in all of college basketball. As one of the most experienced big men in the conference and one of the oldest (24), the numbers across the board should continue to rise. An ankle injury that he been enduring since the summer finally healed a few weeks ago and he along with Carson have been the pre-season standouts for ASU.

As always the case with the Sun Devil center, the mental aspect of his game is what will ultimately fuel his success or regulate him to mediocrity, and so far the senior appears to be more locked in than ever. He has improved his scoring around the rim as well as his rebounding. One key for this team on defense is to do a better job in coverage and rotation when Bachynski commits himself to blocking a shot. With the right mindset, Bachynski is simply put a difference maker.

Reserves:

Brandan Kearney – Due to transfer rules, the former Michigan State wing can only suit up for game action for ASU on December 21st. The sophomore is an extremely athletic wing that could even guard the 4 position in a pinch with his 6-5 frame, but needs to bulk up over his current weight of 190 lbs. While he has good shooting ability and can get to the rim, he needs to improve his rebounding to truly make him a versatile weapon for ASU and be that late quality free agent pickup, if you will, that will make the team that much deeper just in time for conference play.

Eric Jacobsen – possibly the most important reserve on guard-heavy team is the backup big man. Jacobsen has bulked up considerably in the offseason and will get a lot of opportunities to spell Bachynski and possibly Gilling as the season gets underway. May have had the best summer of any player on the team and is poised to show that the flashes displayed as a freshman were no fluke. The sophomore has developed into a better finisher which complements his high basketball I.Q. What his lacks in athleticism he can make up with his 6-10 250-pound frame. Him and Bachynski have undoubtedly made each other better by facing up in practice every day.

Egor Koulechov – the third international export with a similar resume, Koulechov is an Israeli-born, Russian-raised, Florida-high-school-educated wing with deep range and a physical style of play manifested mostly in his rebounding. Of all the freshman newcomers, Koulechov has the best chance to make an instant impact and his vast international experience places him as one of the most experienced newcomers on the team. Can play both forward positions and overall has a lot of intangibles that can greatly help ASU.

Richie Edwards – One of the few native New Zealanders playing college basketball – Edwards sat out last year after transferring from Valparaiso and could get some serious minutes if he flourishes early on. The 6'7" senior may give you the illusion that he is a true front court player who will mix it up in the paint, but his strength is by far shooting the ball from mid-range and beyond the arc. In theory, he could be a solid bench player that could come into the game seemingly cold but heat up quickly with a few shots and make an immediate contribution.

Because of his frame he needs to be tougher and help much more down low than he is now, and again he plays on the team that could use his rebounding. If he could successfully defend players his size that will naturally be low post players who by and large will be stronger than he is, that would be a much welcomes added bonus. On offense he's certainly a player that can help you space the floor and draw an opponent's front court player away from the basket.

Sai Tummala – Originally from Phoenix, Tummala walked on at Michigan before becoming a JUCO All-American at Salt Lake City CC until finally landing back home on scholarship at ASU. Tummala is one of the more athletic guys on the squad and can is an above average shooter. It will be interesting to witness if he will be able to carve out a role for himself in this rotation. If he can knock down the long ball and fight for rebounds, Herb Sendek will make sure that this versatile forward gets his fair share of minutes.

Even though he's technically a junior college transfer his learning curve appears to be steeper than a true freshman such as Koulechov, for example. Once he does more reacting than thinking he will develop into one of the better role players on the team.

Calaen Robinson – The lightning quick combo guard redshirted last season and will be called upon this season to spell Jahii Carson and add even more speed to the backcourt if and when they play together. He emerged out of the China trip as the biggest and most pleasant surprise. Out of all the newcomers he's arguably the least physical and this is where not being able to practice with the team last season (due to a school matter) really hurt him.

Robinson is a better shooter than you would think, and doesn't get his points solely by getting to the rim. When he puts his mind to it, he's a great on ball defender. Like any newcomer, figuring out the consistency of hard you need to play is still an issue. With experience he will learn when to channel his energy so he can be an effective leader on the hardwood, as well as develop into a better student of the game.

Bo Barnes – Barnes may be the odd man out of the initial rotation given the depth at his guard position but injuries and slumps happen every season so Barnes will be ready when his name gets called. His calling card is his shooting ability, although he has battled with consistency in that area and is someone who tends to be much sharper in practice and scrimmages then on game day. He has however been one the fiercest competitors in the pre-season and has worked hard on being a well-rounded player. Time will tell how much he will see the court especially with a challenging non-conference schedule ahead.

Chance Murray – A very good young prospect, Murray, like Barnes, has a lot of bodies in front of him on the depth chart and may be a redshirt candidate, unless he does emerge as Carson's true backup. There is a lot to like about Murray – a sweet shooting stroke and good enough handle to manage both backcourt positions capably. He's very physical for his age which allows him to finish very strong at the basket.

Non-Conference Schedule:

Cupcakes help your win-loss record but kill your RPI. That has mostly been the case in the first seven years of Sendek's tenure. This season, that changes. The first test will be a trip to UNLV before hosting Marquette and then playing Creighton in the Wooden Legacy Tournament in Anaheim that also features San Diego State, Miami and possibly a rematch with Marquette.

Following that event, a trip to DePaul will hopefully prove beneficial as well home games against Texas Tech and UC Irvine at home in late December before Pac-12 play begins. With UNLV, Marquette and Creighton all projected to be in the field of 68, winning against Creighton becomes hugely important as to add more significant foes during Thanksgiving weekend.

Arizona State has been on the wrong side of the bubble three times in Sendek's four winning seasons and that is no longer acceptable. But aside for the possible RPI boost the hope is that this slate of games in November and December will translate into a better playing squad in Pac-12 play and beyond.

Pac-12 Schedule:

A favorable schedule as the Devils only make one trip to the Northwest against the Oregon schools and only true gauntlet in front of them when they play three straight games against Oregon, Arizona and Colorado with the first of those two being at home. The highlight of the season will be on Valentine's Day when ASU hosts UofA on ESPN on a Friday night, a game that will definitely test the understanding of ASU fans' significant others.

Prediction:

Depth wise this is the best team Sendek has assembled since arriving in Tempe. Its abundance of upper classmen and having two transfers that played in the best college basketball conference in the nation last season (Big Ten) is quite the luxury. Needless to say that now this group of players has to justify the great sense of optimism that has surrounded this team since Carson decided to come back for his sophomore year.

This group of players has displayed the high character and selfless attitude that is a necessity for a fast pace style of play where the tempo will force players to rotate in and out more frequently than usual and decreasing playing opportunities and statistics in the process. How does that this theory translate to the court remains to be seen. If this group of players can continue to be one unit even through adversity, and not be afraid to level constructive criticism on each other when warranted, then indeed the end result should correlate with the current hype.

The prediction is Sweet 16. This team has everything you really look for in a successful squad: superstar point guard, good big man, capable shooters, experienced roster, even more experienced coaching staff and a favorable schedule. I see this squad going 23-8 in the regular season with a top-4 finish in the Pac-12 standings before getting to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

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