The Arizona State Sun Devils (16-5, 5-3 Pac-12) are riding a three-game win streak, including two against Top 50 RPI teams. They are tied for third place in one of the most difficult conferences and have the unenviable task of playing the No. 1 team in the country twice in a month's time.
The Sun Devils flirted with the NCAA tournament last season but haven't received an invitation to dance since James Harden claimed student status. Since their second-round loss to Syracuse, the Devils have gone to the NIT twice in the past four years and grossly underachieved.
Is this the year that the Sun Devils return to the Big Dance, or will they wallow once again in their mediocrity?
Head coach Herb Sendek scored a major coup when 4-star local product Jahii Carson, the No. 33-rated player in the country by Rivals signed with Arizona State University. What was even more shocking was that Carson signed with the Sun Devils on the heels of their 4-14 conference record.
Carson utilized his redshirt season by watching and learning the ways of the team and how Sendek and his assistants ran things. Carson started the first game of the 2012-13 season and hit the ground running by breaking several Sun Devils freshman records, including most points in a season, most assists in a season and most 20-point games. He was also named Pac-12 Co-Freshman of the Year.
This season is rumored to be his last before declaring for the NBA draft, and although his individual production has dropped off a bit, his team-first mentality has improved, as he hasn't needed to carry the team as he did last year. Carson ranks third in the conference with 18.9 points per game and sixth in assists with 4.7 per game. Those numbers are good enough to lead all Sun Devils, but he also leads in another category by a large margin—turnovers; he is averaging 3.6 per game including six each in the past two games.
Carson is truly a contender, but this year's draft class is one of the best in recent memory with Joel Embiid of Kansas, Doug McDermott of Creighton and possibly four starters from No. 1 Arizona joining the fray. His smaller size also has scouts and others doubting his ability to carry a championship team.
"In my opinion, Carson will have a long NBA career as a solid backup point guard on a championship team or a starter on a weak team," said Doug Franz of ArizonaSports.com, co-host of the wildly popular Phoenix radio program Doug & Wolf. "Jahii Carson will be a mid-second round draft pick in the 2014 draft and receive a non-guaranteed contract. He'd be close to a lottery pick in the 2015 draft and receive a guaranteed contract that will set up his family for the rest of his life."
Only time will tell if Carson will keep with his plan to enter the NBA draft after this season, but a victory in the NCAA tournament will do wonders for his resume.
Jordan Bachynski, the 7'2", 250-pound senior, is making a big noise in his final season in the desert. The Calgary, Alberta native has really come into his own the past two seasons and has increased his draft stock from "not a chance" to "give a second look."
He currently leads all Division I schools with 4.2 blocks per game and, barring a catastrophe, will break the all-time conference record of 278 career blocks held by Arizona's Anthony Cook from 1985-1989. At his current pace, he should break the record within the week, although he only notched one block against Cal on Wednesday night.
Last season, Bachynski tallied five double-doubles. To begin this season, Bachynski banged out six straight double-doubles and has 11 total while just coming short on two other occasions.
Bachynski leads the team and ranks No. 4 in the conference with 8.8 rebounds per game. His field-goal percentage of .586 also leads the team and places him at No. 6 in the conference.
"At 7'2", his NBA appeal is obvious," wrote Bleacher Report NBA lead writer Jonathan Wasserman. "Guys with this type of size don't come around very often. If Bachynski hasn't hit radars yet, he will soon."
His size makes him desirable, but his toughness under the rim needs to improve. Scouts are also leery about his age; he would be a 25-year-old rookie, and Kyle Nelson of DraftExpress.com states, "For one, scouts will have to determine to what extent the 23-year-old junior can continue to develop considering his advanced age."
Bachynski had a difficult night Wednesday against Cal, but expect him to rebound nicely against Stanford on Saturday and against the Oregon schools at home.
Jermaine Marshall was clutch in Wednesday night's game at Cal. After leading most of the game, the Sun Devils blew a 16-point lead and trailed by three with 25 seconds remaining in regulation. Marshall pulled out a thunderous triple to send the game into overtime, where Sendek's Devils capitalized by outscoring the Bears 17-6.
Marshall finished the game with 22 points, and it's safe to say that his groin injury that held him out of the Arizona game and limited him against Utah and Colorado is no longer an issue.
The graduate transfer student from Penn State is the team's second-leading scorer, averaging 15 points per game, and his three-point percentage of .455 leads the team; his average of 2.6 three-pointers made ranks second in the conference.
Bill Arsenault of the York Daily Record had this quote from Coach Sendek about Marshall:
Jermaine has been aggressive, fun to coach and has given us a great amount of big-game experience. He is a very smart player and knows how to get his points in various ways that all help the team. He also has a knack of coming up with buckets at the right time and getting a key block or steal.
DraftExpress.com ranks Jermaine Marshall No. 68 on its list of top NCAA seniors.
Marshall is the perfect fit in the backcourt with Jahii Carson. The Sun Devils struggled down the stretch last year, losing five of their last seven regular-season games, and blew a 20-point lead against UCLA in the second round of the Pac-12 tournament.
This year, with Marshall in the backcourt alongside Carson, it should be a different story.
Is this Coach Sendek's final season in Tempe? Has his seat become hot enough for incoming vice president of athletics Ray Anderson to look elsewhere?
Anderson has a strong NFL pedigree as the league's former executive vice president of football operations, yet his academic resume is even more astounding. Anderson received his undergraduate degree in political science from Stanford University and his juris doctor from Harvard Law School.
Sendek is in his eighth season as the head coach of the Sun Devils, with a record of 135-113 (.544) and a 58-78 (.426) Pac-12 record. Before his tenure at Arizona State, Sendek took the North Carolina State Wolfpack to five consecutive NCAA tournaments yet has only taken the Sun Devils once—five years ago.
The imminent departure of the teams' top three players at the end of the season signals an urgency for Sendek to not only get into the NCAA tournament, but also to make a deep run if he hopes to impress Anderson and the fanbase at this football-first university.
The Sun Devils have a .6020 RPI, good enough for No. 41 according to ESPN's foremost bracketologist, Joe Lunardi. They have a 1-2 record against teams in the Top 25, defeating Colorado and losing to UCLA and No. 1 Arizona, and are 4-5 against teams with RPIs in the Top 100. They do not have any bad losses and are a remarkable 11-1 at home this season, with only a conference-opening blemish to Washington on their record.
Sendek's coaching staff is remarkable in their own right. Associate head coach Eric Musselman has coached in college, the D-League and the NBA over his 20-year career. Assistant coach Larry Greer has been an assistant coach in the NBA as well as a scout to go along with several years coaching in the college ranks. Assistant coach Stan Johnson is the newest member of the coaching staff, with 10 years of college coaching experience.
Final verdict: With the play of Carson, Bachynski and Marshall, the Sun Devils will spend February on the proverbial bubble with games against No. 1 Arizona, a home and away series against Oregon and a road trip to the always-difficult venues of Utah and Colorado.
Nobody expects them to beat Arizona, but sweeping Oregon and Colorado will be great items on their tournament resume.
David A. Bowers is the featured columnist for Arizona State Athletics, follow him on Twitter at @asudave.