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March 6, 2012When March rolls around, anything can happen.
That's the philosophy No. 10 seed Arizona State has heading into Wednesday's start of the Pac-12 tournament at Staples Center in Los Angeles when it plays No. 7 Stanford at 6:10 p.m. PT.
Although beating their in-state rival Sunday may have offered a respite, the Sun Devils understand the win didn't magically turn their dismal season into something else.
Still, it was confidence-inspiring heading into a Pac-12 tournament with a landscape that's seemingly wide open.
"We realize that it was a big win, but we also realize that that doesn't make our season," sophomore center Jordan Bachynski said. "We're looking toward the Pac-12 tournament as an opportunity to make it to the (NCAA) tournament. As crazy as that sounds, I mean, it's been done before. It's definitely not out of the question."
Sendek believes anything can happen in a conference tournament setting and is selling his team on the performance of Connecticut last season.
The Huskies entered the Big East tournament with a 9-9 conference record and as the No. 9 seed of the tournament. Not only did it win the Big East tournament and receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, it also went on to win the National Championship.
"One thing we know about March Madness is almost anything can happen," ASU head coach Herb Sendek said. "That's true in most every year and almost all instances. We see that not only in conference tournaments around the country but in the NCAA tournament itself."
A closer look, however, makes clear that ASU's challenge will be much steeper than that which the Huskies overcome last season.
Playing in the nation's toughest ranked conference last year, seven of Connecticut's nine losses came against Top-25 RPI schools in the Big East, and all nine losses were to NCAA Tournament teams.
Also, UCONN had elite talent, including Kemba Walker -- who was selected in the 2011 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Bobcats as the No. 9 overall pick -- and then-freshman Jeremy Lamb, who was on the USA U19 World Championship team last summer.
Nevertheless, Sendek's message has been well received by his team. According to junior guard Trent Lockett, the team was back in the office Monday for a focused practice, knowing there is still work to be done.
"We try to stay true to our form," Lockett said. "Coming off a tough loss, we always say it's a new day. We have to keep working and continue to prepare. Handling adversity is the same as handling success; we acknowledge what we did well, but at the same time we have to move on and have to get ready for Stanford, and I think we did a pretty good job with that (Monday)."
With a statement like that, it seems the Arizona State basketball team will look at this week's Hollywood excursion as a business trip.
Make no mistake, though, about ASU making a tournament run in March: chances are extremely slim for the team that finished 6-12 in a conference considered by many to be mediocre at best. Also, although ASU went 22 of 24 from the foul line and only had 10 turnovers Sunday, those areas have plagued the Sun Devils all season.
One thing ASU has working in its favor, however, is the fact it has played its best basketball of the season of late. According to Lockett, it's imperative for a team to catch fire around this time of the year.
"This is the best time; I mean, we can hopefully make some noise in the Pac-12 tournament," he said.
The decibel level will need to be raised beginning with the opener against the Cardinal. ASU lost to Stanford, 68-44 on Feb. 2; however, Lockett was absent due to an ankle injury. Because of this, and the continued progress of the team, Sendek believes it is better positioned for success this time around.
"I don't know how much, from our standpoint, that we could take away from that game," Sendek said. "It was a good while ago. We were a different team in a lot of ways.
"There's a pretty big distance between where our team was then and where it is now. As we know in college basketball, there can be dramatic shifts from one media timeout to the next, let alone one month to another."
In any case, ASU will have its hands full with the task of slowing down junior big man Josh Owens, who's averaged 12.1 points and 5.8 rebounds per game this season. Stanford freshman guard has also been a force for Stanford this season, averaging 13.1 points and 3.2 rebounds, as well as sophomore guard [db]Aaron Bright[/db], who's averaged 11 points and 3.5 assists.
"Inside, (Owens is) a monster on the glass and in the post," Lockett said. "They have some good guard play. We'll just have to put another good game together if we're looking forward to beating them."
For an ASU team with nothing to lose and everything to gain, the highly improbable battle to out-perform UCONN's conference tournament run from last year starts Wednesday.
"We look at that for inspiration and we know that if we're peaking at the right time and if we play how we can, nothing's out of the question," Bachynski said.