Arizona State once won 18 consecutive games, once owned college basketball across the Pima-Pinal county lines, and once played with such force that Sports Illustrated described a Sun Devil home game as “a house full of fans who didn’t care how stiff their necks got watching the hectic action.”
“Dazzled opponents couldn’t keep up,” it said.
The 1963 article is eerie in the way it fits the 2014 Arizona Wildcats as much as it defined Ned Wulk’s ‘63 Sun Devils.
“Wulk wants his players to move even faster; he has them working on the bobbing, weaving, feinting and jabbing motions of a boxer, on the theory that they can increase hand speed as well as foot speed.”
On Thursday, Arizona’s 91-68 victory over the Sun Devils was a knockout, both in terms of entertainment and decisiveness. The Wildcats led 26-8. ASU missed 15 of its first 17 shots.
Arizona bobbed, the Sun Devils missed.
Arizona jabbed, the Sun Devils whiffed.
It was all a blur for ASU, whose franchise point guard, Jahii Carson, missed his first six shots, and whose 7-foot intimidator, Jordan Bachynski, finished the first half with more fouls (three) than points (one).
“Those guys are ready to play every game,” said Carson. “They have great leadership and are No. 1 in the country for a reason. They just have so many weapons.”
Arizona played with rambunctiousness while gentleman Herb Sendek’s Sun Devils played with typical regimentation. It wasn’t a fair fight, and Sendek surely saw the punches coming. On a Phoenix radio program this week, he referred to Sean Miller‘s recruiting success as “absolutely astonishing.”
“It wasn’t a surprise,” Sendek said. “It was only confirmation.”
Every Arizona starter and subs Gabe York and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson were in double figures with five minutes remaining, about the time Sendek removed Carson from the game as if to say “no mas.”
“We’re unselfish, and everyone’s unselfish, not just one guy,” said UA point guard T.J. McConnell, who was the most effective point guard on the court Thursday. “We can score at any position out there; it makes us so dangerous. I think we’re pretty tough to stop.”
It was 5 against 1 most of the night. Sometimes 5 against none. And yet Miller wanted more.
“We left some points on the table,” he said, miffed at his team’s 13 missed free throws. Spoken like a man who would like to stretch his 18-0 to 28-0.
In Thursday’s pregame video at McKale, whether calculated or not, Phoenix-raised UA stars shared time ballyhooing Sweet 16s and Final Fours. Channing Frye, Jerryd Bayless and Mike Bibby all piped up, almost rubbing it in before the fact.
After that, Maricopa County’s Nick Johnson torched the Sun Devils for 17 points.
If being the nation’s No. 1-ranked team is a burden, it doesn’t show.
“No sir, no sir,” Johnson said. “This is our dream. We’re living our dreams right now, being the No. 1 team in the country.”
Sendek is more acutely aware of Arizona’s success than anyone on the basketball planet. He is in the wrong place at the wrong time, as were his Sun Devil predecessors, all because of Arizona’s “absolutely astonishing” recruiting success of the last 30 years.
After Wulk was terminated prematurely in 1982, fired a year after finishing 24-4 and breaking Oregon State’s 26-game winning streak, the Sun Devils kept hiring coaches who couldn’t match Arizona’s pace. Bob Weinhauer out, Steve Patterson in. Bill Frieder out, Rob Evans out, Sendek in.
Some of it doesn’t figure. Phoenix is such a sprawling metropolis, with so many high schools, you’d think ASU could be a powerhouse every four or five years with home-bred players alone.
But Lute Olson and Miller picked off the few 5-star players from Phoenix in a state not known for its basketball IQ, a prep culture that doesn’t digest the game or shoot baskets by moonlight the way they do in Kansas and Indiana.
In the past 10 years, Arizona’s Gatorade basketball player of the year has been a succession of not-ready-for-primetime prospects. Corey Hawkins is at UC Davis. Taylor Rohde would end up at Alaska-Anchorage. Jordan Baker is at San Jose State. Tim Derksen at San Francisco. Lee Cummard went to BYU.
Until Carson arrived from Mesa, ASU hasn’t suited up an all-conference player from the greater Phoenix area since late-blooming Chad Prewitt 15 years ago.
That’s in part why Sendek doesn’t have a recruiting base. The local players ASU has fielded, such as Donnell Knight and Tommy Smith, were just good enough to get you beat. And because of that, ASU’s national appeal is limited.
It’s where Arizona has cleaned up.
Success has fostered success at McKale; on Thursday, Zona Zoo sold out its ticket allotment in 28 minutes, a record. The energy in the arena was like an Arizona-UCLA game of the ‘90s.
“So far, so good,” said Miller, who has been careful not to use Big Picture terms from his view at the top. “Everything that is behind us is behind us.”
But it is what lies ahead that is so intriguing. If the Wildcats continue to play with the fire and purpose they demonstrated Thursday, Miller is likely to be using his so-far, so-good line until spring.