Jahii Carson grew up in Mesa, Ariz., just a 10-minute drive from Arizona State's campus in Tempe. Yet, when he first started getting recruited as a freshman in high school, the idea of actually playing for the Sun Devils was a distant notion. The reason was simple: Jahii liked to play fast. Arizona State liked to play slow.
Thus, the primary task that Sun Devils coach Herb Sendek faced was convincing Carson that he was willing to change his system to take advantage of Carson's speed. Teenage prodigies are used to hearing slick recruiting pitches, but because they lived so close, Carson and his family developed a close relationship with Sendek. They believed he was a man of his word. "I got to know him on a personal level, so I knew his character," Carson says. "We knew he wasn't the type of person just to say something in recruiting."
After originally committing to Oregon State, Carson re-opened his recruitment as well as his mind. Eventually, he turned down offers from several elite programs to play for the man he calls "Coach Herb." Since arriving on campus a year ago, the only thing that has slowed Carson down was a ruling from the NCAA that he was academically ineligible to compete during his first year. Now that he is fully cleared, he and the Sun Devils have gone full speed ahead. After defeating Arkansas-Pine Bluff 67-54 on Wednesday night, the Sun Devils are 5-1 and averaging 77.2 points per game, the third-highest in the Pac-12 and 44th nationally. That is a considerable jump from Sendek's first six years in Tempe, when his teams averaged 64.4 points and never ranked higher than 142nd in the country and sixth in the conference.
Carson stands just 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, so he needs a high-octane offense to be effective. Sendek has made him feel right at home. Heading into Wednesday's game, Jahii was ranked second in the Pac-12 in scoring (21.0 ppg), third in assists (5.0) and eighth in three-point percentage (46.2). Carson also has a bevy of fleet-footed running mates in 6-2 senior guard Chris Colvin, 6-1 junior guard Evan Gordon, and 6-6 senior swingman Carrick Felix. "My teammates have bought into this idea as well," Carson says. "People say that ASU is a slowdown basketball team, but that's definitely something we'd like to change."
While this new-look ASU might give some of its fans whiplash, Sendek insists that he has not really changed his philosophy. "We're doing the same thing we always do, which is to ask ourselves who we have and how we can put those guys in the best position to take advantage of their strengths," he says. "When you have someone like Jahii as one of our primary focal points, it just makes great sense to try to push the pace."
Still, Sendek concedes that his reputation for deploying a slower tempo, and especially his use of the Princeton offense, has been a hindrance on the recruiting trail. Carson says that many coaches warned him that he would wither on Sendek's vine. Sendek argues that this is an unfair knock (he points out that his last few teams at N.C. State averaged in the mid-70s), but he also recognizes that in recruiting perception is reality. "Everybody has these portrayals of themselves. A lot of people say they run, but when you watch the film, they're not taking it out on makes and pushing it up the floor," he says. "When I was at N.C. State, because we were running the "Princeton offense", everyone assumed we were playing slow, but we really weren't."
When the Sun Devils aren't running their fast break (with the help of a fullcourt, trapping pressure defense), they are executing a slash-and-shoot halfcourt offense that is predicated on ball screens. If their sets look like they came from the NBA, it's because they did. As is often the case, Sendek spent a great deal of time over the spring and summer watching video of NBA teams. (He was especially fixated on the Celtics and the Bulls this year.) When two of his assistants left for other jobs, he filled one of those vacancies with Eric Musselman, a former head coach of the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings.
Though it is early in the season, Sendek can take heart that one of the Sun Devils' wins came in a Las Vegas tournament against Arkansas, a program identified by the up tempo system coached by Mike Anderson, who learned his frenetic style from his college coach, Nolan Richardson, the architect of "Forty Minutes of Hell." For a coach whose job security is tenuous after his teams missed the NCAA tournament the last three years (and had no postseason at all the last two years), this new way to play helps because it is a lot more entertaining. Sendek says that was not an incentive -- "You're better off winning 52-50 than losing 97-95" -- but the early returns suggest the added scoring will lead to more wins.
It's a long way between now and Selection Sunday, but Sendek and Carson have made their choice on how they want to travel that road -- by sprinting. They are off and running and have no intention of turning back. "We have good energy and good mojo," Sendek says hopefully. "We're having fun with the way we're playing and it's really effective. Now, we just have to get better at it."
Syracuse 80, Arkansas 70 (Friday, 8:30 p.m.): The Razorbacks lost two straight in Vegas to Arizona State and Wisconsin. A date with Syracuse and its ridiculously long front line is no cure for what ails them.
Georgetown 72, Tennessee 60 (Friday, 6:30 p.m.): Otto Porter gets most of the pub, but guard Markel Starks has been fabulous for the Hoyas. Starks is leading the team in scoring (14.0 ppg) while shooting 50.9 percent from the floor and 47.1 percent from three.
Louisville 79, Illinois State 70 (Saturday, 1 p.m.): It might surprise you to learn that senior guard Tyler Brown, not Jackie Carmichael, is leading the Redbirds in scoring at nearly 19 points per game. That still won't be enough to get by the Dieng-less Cardinals at home.
Kentucky 76, Baylor 71 (Saturday, 12:30 p.m.): It's unclear whether Bears guard Brady Heslip, who missed the loss to College of Charleston in Waco because he was recovering from an appendectomy, will be back in the lineup. Even if he is, the Bears will be outmanned. The Wildcats will also be tough to beat in Rupp if they lose in South Bend on Thursday night.
Creighton 71, Saint Joseph's 66 (Saturday, 3 p.m.): This is going to feel like one of those evenly matched 5 vs. 12 NCAA tournament games. Hawks guard Tay Jones appears to have regained his form after being suspended the first two games, but the Bluejays just do too many things well. They also need a bounce back win after Wednesday's home loss to Boise State.
Gonzaga 74, Pacific 64 (Saturday, 8 p.m.): The Zags have a challenging stretch ahead with games at Washington State, home against Illinois, versus Kansas State in Seattle, and then in late December against Baylor and at Oklahoma State. So they need to take care of business here in a winnable home game.
San Diego State 75, UCLA 63 (Saturday, 10 p.m.): Even though this game is in Anaheim, I'll bet there will be more SDSU fans than UCLA fans in attendance.
California 66, Wisconsin 61 (Sunday, 4 p.m.): Cal has won its first six games against nondescript opponents, so we'll find out in the Kohl Center if the team is for real. In Justin Cobbs and Allen Crabbe, they have the sharp-shooting guards to pull off the win. From here, Cal plays UNLV and Creighton at home, so we'll learn a lot more about this team over the next week and a half.
Last pickoff: 6-4
Last week, I got a call from Steve Carp, the longtime college hoops beat writer from the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Steve told me he was working on yet another story addressing the question of whether Jerry Tarkanian should be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Carp was calling because he came across a column I wrote for SI.com back in 2003 arguing that because of his long rap sheet of NCAA violations, Tarkanian should never be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. The column was pretty tough, to say the least. It ended with a two-word summation of my argument: "He cheated."
Carp asked if I still felt that way. So first of all, I want to thank him for doing that instead of simply republishing something that I wrote nearly nine years ago. ("I'm old school," Carp said.) And as I thought about it for the first time in a long time, I gave Carp an answer that surprised even me: No. I don't still feel that way. I believe Tark should go into the Hall of Fame.
The reason for my switch has much to do with the passage of time. In the decade that has passed since I wrote those words, I've learned a lot more about the totality of the historical record, and while I still don't like the way Tarkanian always fell back on the everybody-did-it defense, there is much truth to his argument. Certainly there are people who "cheated" who are in the Hall of Fame, regardless of whether they ever got nailed by the NCAA. Unlike the current environment, where the NCAA's gumshoes appear intent (and perhaps over-eager) to penalize high-profile programs like UCLA, Indiana, Ohio State and Kentucky, there is no doubt that Tarkanian came of age in an era in which the NCAA preferred to look the other way when it came to the big boys. Hence his immortalized quote that "the NCAA is so mad at Kentucky, they put Western Kentucky on probation."
Time has also passed for Jerry Tarkanian. He recently turned 82 and is in declining health. He has already had one close brush with death. He is not going to live forever. Based on his coaching credentials alone, he would have been elected to the Hall before he retired. He committed enough wrongdoing to warrant a lengthy delay, but banning him for eternity is a punishment that does not fit his crimes.
It has been a long wait for Jerry Tarkanian and his family. He has paid his price. He has served his time. Let the man have his due.
• Ohio State played well enough at Duke to win Wednesday night, but the Buckeyes are in dire need of a stronger second offensive option. Deshaun Thomas is the team's only natural scorer, so when the Blue Devils shut him down in the second half, Ohio State needed Aaron Craft to produce big buckets, and that's just not what he does. The player with the most potential to grow into this role is 6-8 sophomore forward LaQuinton Ross, but it appears he isn't mentally ready for it.
• I'm rooting for Arizona forward Kevin Parrom as much as any player in the country. The kid has been through hell and back (including being shot) but is serving as an invaluable sixth man on an excellent team.
• Get ready for a whole lot of stories about Boise State. The Broncos nearly knocked off Michigan State in the Breslin Center on Nov. 20, and last night they scored an eye-popping road win at Creighton. Derrick Marks, a 6-3 sophomore from Chicago, went for 35 in the win. Doug Who?
• I realize Michigan State is a little beat up, which contributed to the Spartans' loss at Miami Wednesday night, but I reiterate what I believe to be a major problem for this team: No low-post scoring. The problem is exacerbated by the team's lack of a traditional, playmaking, post-feeding point guard.
• If you like that Duke's three-man nucleus is made of up of seniors (and I do), then you gotta like Illinois' senior core of Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey (which I also do).
• Remember when Wisconsin was unbeatable at home? Those were the good ole days.
• I can't imagine a program having much of a worse week than the one UCLA just had. You just get the feeling this is not going to end well.
• Imagine how much better Maryland would be if Pe'Shon Howard could make a shot. He's shooting 22 percent from three and 15 percent from the floor, yet somehow he's averaging nearly seven assists per game.
• I like what I see from Oregon, especially at the defensive end. Dana Altman can really coach, and his Ducks are tougher than people realize. They gave another tough team, Cincinnati, all it could handled when the teams played in Vegas.
• Wichita State is still undefeated, and one of those wins came on the road against VCU. Just making sure you knew.
• Big, big night for Kansas senior center Jeff Withey last week in the win over San Jose State. He set a single-game school record for blocks (12) and had the second triple double in school history (16 points, 12 rebounds). You may have heard that they've been playing basketball at Kansas for quite a while.
• It has long been my opinion that referees get about 85 percent of their calls (and no-calls) correct. Ten percent of their calls are incorrect but close, and five percent are boneheaded mistakes. All in all, I'd say that's a pretty good rate.
• Along those lines, a high school basketball coach I used to cover named Gary Palladino at Notre Dame High in West Haven, Conn., told me many years ago he thought basketball was 70 percent talent, 20 percent coaching, and 10 percent luck. Still haven't heard anyone put it better than that.
• Kentucky will be better with Ryan Harrow healthy and in the fold (he returns Thursday night against Notre Dame), but in the meantime Archie Goodwin is getting valuable experience running the team. He averaged 24 points and 6.5 assists in the Wildcats' recent wins over Morehead State and LIU-Brooklyn.
• Speaking of Morehead State, I sure hope Sean Woods learned his lesson after being suspended for berating and humiliating his player. I can never understand coaches who act like that and then think they can caution their players to keep their cool when the pressure gets hot.
• Rick Byrd has another solid team at Belmont. The Bruins are 5-1 with a road win at Stanford. Can't wait to see them play Murray State in the OVC.
• Kelly Olynyk's return from a suspension has given Gonzaga a boost, but it appears to have come at the expense of the team's starting center, Sam Dower. I'd love to see those guys play well together.
• N.C. State didn't complete its comeback at Michigan, but I think the Wolfpack learned a valuable lesson about just how hard they have to fight. As I said throughout the preseason, these guys have to learn how to play with a bullseye on their backs. Until you've experienced it, it's hard to comprehend just how difficult it can be.
• Cody Zeller is playing great, but I still don't think he's making perimeter jump shots the way he's capable. He just needs to fire them with confidence.
• Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum is headed for one of those seasons. He has already had three 30-plus games, and he leads the nation in scoring at 26.3 points per game. And lest you think he's just a volume shooter, McCollum is converting 50.8 percent from the floor and 55.3 percent from three. Maybe it's just because he wears the number 3, but he looks a little like D.Wade out there.
• Minnesota's convincing win at Florida State Tuesday night was one of the more impressive under-the-radar performances you'll see all season. I thought the Gophers would be gassed after playing three games in three days in the Bahamas, and then having to play a true road game on Tuesday. Duke also played three games in three days in the Bahamas and the Blue Devils looked tired against Ohio State, even though they had an extra day and got to play at home.
• Louisville will miss Gorgui Dieng (broken wrist) in the short term, but the development of Stephan Van Treese as a backup center will help in the long term.
• Great name, nice game: Titus Rubles. The Cincinnati juco transfer took over that Oregon game in the second half.
• Ed Daniels' hair > Andrew Bynum's hair.
• If you're watching Syracuse, I'm sure that, like me, you're keeping a close eye on the progress of 6-9 freshman forward DaJuan Coleman. He needed just 18 minutes to get 12 points and 7 rebounds against Colgate. Yes, it was Colgate, but it was still a nice baby step.