As the college basketball season began back in November, Arizona State coach Herb Sendek stood in front of a Herculean task of replacing All-Pac-10 performers James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph. However, as most media members predicted ASU to return to the bottom tier of the Pac-10 following these key departures, Sendek and his Sun Devils came together as a team and disregarded the media pundits and exceeded the preseason expectations.
But how does a team which exceeded expectations still come up just short in the long run?
As the basketball season marched on, Arizona State began building chemistry and team morale began to rise with victories at home against NCAA tournament teams San Diego State and UC Santa Barbara, which the Sun Devils beat in dominating fashion.
Then ASU hit the road to tip off against top opponents such as Duke, BYU, and Baylor. Although the results were not what Sendek and the Devils would have hoped for, Arizona State built confidence through these narrow defeats at the hands of Duke and Baylor, and entered conference play with a 10-3 record.
Although ASU's conference slate began with a series sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles schools, Sendek and the Devils knew their ability and rose to the challenge and won four straight games by double digits to rise to the top of the conference.
Sure, Arizona State played quality basketball for stretches of the season, but it slipped up at the most inopportune times, such as a demoralizing home loss to in-state rival Arizona, followed up by a second half lapse against conference champion California at home.
Then again, aside for Arizona State's series sweep in L.A., the Sun Devils beat every team on their schedule that they were slated to beat. Although, if the media members during the preseason were correct, ASU would have finished with lone victories against cellar dwellers Washington State and Oregon.
Instead, proving preseason polls wrong, Arizona State ended the regular season with 22 wins, nine losses, and a second-place finish, one game behind conference champion California. So much for a ninth-place finish and no chance of a postseason for the Sun Devils.
Now, fans in Tempe took a wait-and-see approach with Herb Sendek's squad, and once Pac-10 play began, the waiting was over and the hype and expectations began to rise.
Fans became intrigued by the outside shooting of Ty Abbott and Rik Kuksiks, the ball handling and leadership exuded by senior point guard Derek Glasser, and the growing inside presence of Duke transfer Eric Boateng. The team had character, confidence, and drive, as well as a coach who knew how to lead a team to the promised land.
The Sun Devils seemed to prove the doubters wrong all season, even when national media experts bad mouthed and talked down the Pac-10's performance and the quality of basketball that the teams displayed. Nonetheless, ASU continued its hard-hat performances and kept grinding through its opponents, and earned a second seed in the Pac-10 tournament.
Expectations rose to new heights in Tempe. However, fans could think back to November and December, remembering the wait-and-see approach, although most ignored those sentiments, and rightfully so. The fans were caught up in the excitement of March Madness and their Sun Devils had a legitimate shot at making the Big Dance.
All ASU had to do was beat Stanford and get the ball rolling once again. That task was a lot easier said than done.
Stanford, a team that Arizona State defeated twice this season, came out with energy, intensity, and a defense that was forcing turnovers left and right. Sendek and the Sun Devils met their match and clearly it was not the Sun Devils' best performance of the season.
Ty Abbott, Arizona State's leading scorer, was ice cold from the floor for the better part of the game, and the only thing keeping ASU close was the play of Kuksiks and Boateng.
Kuksiks scored 15 points, however all of his points were scored in the first half. Boateng was a spark to the offense with 13 points and 15 rebounds, but his performance was not enough to carry ASU to the promised land.
The talk around town before ASU's quarterfinal matchup was: "Beat Stanford and you're in." Now, looking back on those comments, ASU would most likely have had to beat Washington again in the semifinal game.
All of the upsets this weekend—conference favorites like Utah State going down in their championship, Texas-El Paso losing to Houston, and even Gonzaga coming up short against St. Mary's—affected the chances ASU had to make the field without an automatic berth from winning the conference tournament.
Was Arizona State worthy of bid to the Big Dance? Probably not—and that is the honest truth. However, Sendek and the Sun Devils captured lightning in a bottle and ran with it for as long as they could, and as fans, we bought into what the program was selling.
In the end, Arizona State was passed over for teams that performed better late in the season with better profiles and were more deserving. Now, ASU has to reevaluate their postseason expectations and focus on a different championship: the NIT Championship.
ASU lost to Duke in the preseason NIT championship at Madison Square Garden. This time around, ASU will look to raise the trophy and end the season on a winning note. It is not the national championship, but Arizona State will make continued progress toward next season. What type of expectations will come from their performance? Only time will tell.