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November 16, 2011Arizona State coach Herb Sendek has said he's been cautiously encouraged by his team's offense over the course of the last month. It admittedly comes with a rather significant caveat, however, he admits, that being his team hasn't shown much on that end of the floor through its first two games of the season.
Sendek was again flummoxed by ASU's play Tuesday, and on this occasion the Sun Devils weren't able to overcome their ineffectiveness as they did in the opener, losing to Pepperdine 66-60 in front of a largely quiet 4,127 at Wells Fargo Arena.
The loss dropped ASU to 1-1 on the season, and provided a foreboding sign to what may lay ahead for the team considering the Waves were playing without top returning scorer, Lorne Jackson (knee) and are projected to finish at the bottom of the West Coast Conference after a 12-21 finish last season.
"I know we're capable of doing a lot better," a dejected junior guard Carrick Felix said after contributing 12 points, five rebounds and four assists. "I'm with these guys 24/7 and the effort and amount we put in in practice, I know for sure this group of guys will get it, I know we'll get it."
It's only going to get tougher for the Sun Devils, though, in the short term, as Friday they'll host New Mexico, a team that is perhaps their toughest non-conference opponent.
Both Sendek and Pepperdine coach Marty Wilson talked about ball movement being a key element of the game's result, with Sendek so displeased he even turned to freshman 5-foot-9, 150 pound walk-on point guard Max Heller for six minutes of the second half.
"I'll tell you what, our guys believed in each other," Wilson said. "They were disciplined offensively and shared the ball. That was one thing we were proud about. A stat that we had, 12 buckets and we had 10 assists in the first half. Our guys are buying in to what we're preaching."
Pepperdine opened the game pounding the ball inside to the post, which led to some baskets by Taylor Darby in the paint over sophomore Kyle Cain, and opened up the floor for its shooters. The Waves made their first six 3-pointers en route to an 8 of 11 finish behind the arc. It eventually forced the Sun Devils to abandon their traditional match-up zone in favor of a man-to-man defense for about as large a stretch as any game in the Sendek-era.
The Waves ultimately were very balanced in scoring, with nine players scoring five or more points and only one, Joshua Lowery, finishing in double figures with 12.
"Pepperdine was really on fire shooting the basketball, came out and really hurt us from behind the arc, and although they didn't get as many 3s once we switched to our man-to-man, I thought the bank shot at the end of the shot clock kind of typified what we were experiencing with their shooting, 8 for 11 from 3," Sendek said. "But just as significantly, we never found any rhythm or sync offensively. I think we were limited to three baskets inside even though that was clearly a point of emphasis going into the game."
Cain hit the glass hard for the Sun Devils, pulling down 10 rebounds in 15 minutes, but he couldn't score around the basket, finishing just 1 of 6 from the field and it led to Sendek playing sophomore Jordan Bachynski extensively. That created a little more offense, as Bachynski made both of his field goal attempts and converted 3 of 6 free throws, but a deficiency on the glass, as the 7-foot-2 center was only able to haul in one rebound in 17 minutes.
For the second straight game, junior Trent Lockett was the team's primary bright spot, with 23 points and nine rebounds on just 11 field goal attempts.
What seemed to frustrate Sendek most, however, was his team's inability or unwillingness to share the ball well enough. Junior point guard Chris Colvin tied Felix for the team-high with four assists, but made just 3 of 12 field goals, while sophomore Keala King went 0 for 4 from the field and had two assists in 25 minutes.
With Sendek seemingly grasping for any kind of offensive purchase, he turned to Heller in a move that raised eyebrows and had fans -- and some media -- reaching for their programs.
"Max has been doing a good job in practice," Sendek said. "He moves the ball. He moves the ball and hits the open man. He's a smart player and he talks. We felt like we needed some ball movement, we needed somebody who was going to go out there and get the ball movement going for us. He's consistently had a very positive assist-to-turnover ratio in practice and I thought he gave us some good minutes tonight."
Last season, Sendek turned to another walk-on point guard, Marcus Jackson, early in the season when things weren't going particularly well, and the team finished at the bottom of the Pac-10. Whether this early season move portends a similar result remains to be seen, but it's clearly evident the Sun Devils have a lot of work to do.
They struggle to score in the post -- just three field goals in the paint Tuesday -- and also aren't appearing to be as reliant from 3-point range as they have been in past years, making just 7 of 27 from behind the arc Tuesday. They've talked about a quicker tempo, but haven't been able to generate many points in transition or off of defensive steals and deflections.
"We got to make plays," Sendek said. "We have to score when we get the ball inside. I thought we had some open looks from 3 that we passed up. I don't know that we're real comfortable on offense."