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March 14, 2014

Sun Devils left to wonder about NCAA fate




LAS VEGAS -- After losing five of its last seven and three in a row for the first time all season, Arizona State hopes it can win a contest in which its players and coach readily admit to having no control over the outcome whatsoever: the waiting game.

Maybe, perhaps embarrassingly, that should be a bit easier than when they actually have to play. That latter hasn't worked so well of late, especially away from the comfort of Wells Fargo Arena.

In non-home games ASU has lost eight of its last nine games including a dismal 79-58 effort in an opening Pac-12 Tournament loss to Stanford Thursday, which dropped its overall record to 21-11 (10-9 in league games).

Now, they're left to hope and ruminate.

"We had a little bit of a sluggish end, but I think we built a good resume over the course of the season," sophomore star point guard Jahii Carson said following his 4 of 13 shooting performance which netted 10 points to go with four assists.

They're reduced to trying to put themselves in the shoes of the NCAA Selection committee instead of wearing their own again between now and NCAA bracket announcements.

"I'm going to be praying, praying, on Selection Sunday and every day leading up to it," said senior center Jordan Bachynski, who had just seven points on 1 of 5 shooting and didn't play at all late in the second half. "Hopefully our resume is what it needs to be and I'm just going to have faith that we're in. I hate that there's nothing I can do right now to change my fate. That is the worst feeling."

Perhaps to themselves, and certainly to others, they're trying to put on a positive face and sell themselves off the court, rather than on it.

"We're looking forward to [Sunday]," ASU coach Herb Sendek said. "I think if you listen to all the pundits there's every reason to feel confident. I think we have nine wins over Top-100 teams, we play in a great league, but like everybody else, we'll have to wait until Sunday."

With an RPI of 42, ASU is probably still safely in the field and looking at a 10 or 11 seed according to most Bracketologists. A glass half full mentality might even say that's better than having to play as an eight or nine seed, in which a first round win yields one of the nation's top teams as a reward.

The danger in all of this recent losing is two-fold. It means a "First Four" game in Dayton, Ohio, on March 18 or 19 isn't out of the question, even as its still unlikely. But more problematic is how unshakably poor the Sun Devils have played of late.

When the basket shrinks up from the perimeter, ASU's chances also severely contract. This isn't a team that has shown the moxie to win on the defensive side of the floor or the athletic length to churn out second chance opportunities on offense.

"We're struggling," ASU senior guard Jermaine Marshall said, and he's certainly including himself considering he's shot 7 of 34 in the three game losing streak. "We've just got to figure it out. We've got to figure out how to grind basketball games out. I think that's the biggest thing, especially when you're not making shots. We've got to learn how to get stops and win games on defense. We'll see what goes on Sunday and hopefully we get into the Tournament and we have some time to figure it out."

A three game losing streak and borderline incompetence away from home isn't the way any team wants to enter an NCAA Tournament, particularly when it readily admits it has things to figure out.

After not collecting a single offensive rebound or getting a second chance basket through the first 31 minutes of Thursday's loss, the clues to the puzzle are readily apparent, even if the skill or effort needed to solve it isn't.

"It's almost not even possible to miss 30 shots from the field like we did and have two offensive rebounds, both by Shaq (McKissic)," Sendek said.

Becoming a much tougher, more determined team probably won't happen overnight or even in the next week, even though there is realistic room for improvement. Certainly, ASU isn't going to evolve into a lock down defensive team or a great rebounding squad. As it relates to those things, the dye has already been cast.

But moving the basketball better and getting open looks from the perimeter, things it did for large stretches even in the loss to Stanford, are within their grasp. Junior Jonathan Gilling hit 4 of 9 from 3-point range as he earned extensive minutes due to starting sophomore Eric Jacobsen getting three fouls in three first half minutes. Junior reserve wing Bo Barnes made 2 of 4 3-pointers and played well off the bench.

ASU needs to extend that productivity across its roster, especially with the struggling Marshall, and get more from Bachynski on the low block.

"We just need to get back to Sun Devil basketball," Bachynski said. "We know that when we play our way, when we're playing with each other, when we're moving the ball -- there were certain points in this game we were doing that and that's when we closed the gap."

Is it possible the Sun Devils could shake their road struggles and have some success next week despite all of their issues? Sendek is putting on a brave face regardless of how plausible it actually is.

"I've been doing this long enough to see so many teams lose in the conference tournament and then make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament," Sendek said. "Things change quickly, you know? So we just have to go back and regroup and move forward."


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