In the depleted Pac-10, Harden's return makes Arizona State a contender.
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Nov. 14 Mississippi Valley State Nov. 18 at San Diego State Nov. 23 Pepperdine Nov. 27-30 Charlotte* ** Dec. 4 Jackson State Dec. 7 Nebraska Dec. 14 IUPUI (in Phoenix) Dec. 20 BYU (in Glendale, Ariz.) Dec. 23 Idaho State Dec. 29 Central Connecticut State *76 Classic, in Anaheim (also Baylor, Cal State-Fullerton, Providence, Saint Mary's, UTEP, Wake Forest)
The Sun Devils' soft schedule won't impress the NCAA selection committee, but the team could get a reading of its Pac-10 chances -- and improve its RPI -- at the 76 Classic if it can beat Charlotte and advance, perhaps, to play Baylor and maybe even Wake Forest, two likely tournament teams.
The stars -- and one in particular -- are aligned for the Sun Devils
The Pac-10 won't be the nation's best conference this season, the way it was a year ago. Such is life without O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love, Brook Lopez and Jerryd Bayless, part of the Pac-10 record haul of seven players who were taken in the first round of the NBA draft. But one of the few league teams that will be improved from 2007–08 is Arizona State, thanks in large part to the return of sophomore guard James Harden.
What turned heads during Harden's freshman season wasn't just his production (17.8 points per game, a league-leading 73 steals, a first-team all-conference spot) but also that it came from the youngest player in the Pac-10. "James is actually young [for his class]," Sun Devils coach Herb Sendek says of Harden, who turned 19 in August. "At that age a year can be a significant difference-maker."
Indeed, Harden says he sprouted an inch in the past year, to 6' 5", and he spent the summer working on his on-the-ball defense and mid-range game. "I wanted to be comfortable shooting [mid-range] jumpers instead of always attacking the rim or shooting three-pointers," he says. "That meant lots of one-dribble pull-ups and catching-and-shooting in the key, in the mid-range and on the blocks." Not that Harden devoted his entire off-season to individual work. The L.A. native also ran in a summer game with Lakers star Kobe Bryant and played (to positive reviews from NBA scouts) at the LeBron James and Paul Pierce skills camps.
Sendek has always been known as one of the nation's brainiest coaches -- he graduated summa cum laude from Carnegie-Mellon -- and he's eager to cultivate Harden's elevated hoops IQ. "One thing I've tried to do with James is have a dialogue with him," Sendek explains. "I'm curious to find out what he likes, what he doesn't like, where he's comfortable and what we can take advantage of, not just in our planning but even as the game is going on."
With Harden and 6' 9" senior forward Jeff Pendergraph, a third-team all-conference selection, the Sun Devils have the firepower to contend for a title in the weakened Pac-10 and earn the NCAA tournament berth that was denied them last year, after a bitter loss to USC (which included a dodgy last-minute foul call) in the league tournament. That was one of the reasons behind Harden's decision to pass up the NBA draft and return to Tempe. "I needed to work on several things before I was ready to make that move," says Harden. "I was still young and didn't just want to be a one-and-done guy. I want to get to the tournament and make a run there." -- Grant Wahl
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