THE PAC-10 won'tbe the nation's best conference this season, the way it was a year ago. Such islife without O.J. Mayo, Kevin Love, Brook Lopez and Jerryd Bayless, part of thePac-10 record haul of seven players who were taken in the first round of theNBA draft. But one of the few league teams that will be improved from 2007--08is Arizona State, thanks in large part to the return of sophomore guard JamesHarden.
What turned headsduring Harden's freshman season wasn't just his production (17.8 points pergame, a league-leading 73 steals, a first-team all-conference spot) but alsothat it came from the youngest player in the Pac-10. "James is actuallyyoung [for his class]," Sun Devils coach Herb Sendek says of Harden, whoturned 19 in August. "At that age a year can be a significantdifference-maker."
Indeed, Hardensays he sprouted an inch in the past year, to 6'5", and he spent the summerworking on his on-the-ball defense and mid-range game. "I wanted to becomfortable shooting [mid-range] jumpers instead of always attacking the rim orshooting three-pointers," he says. "That meant lots of one-dribblepull-ups and catching-and-shooting in the key, in the mid-range and on theblocks." Not that Harden devoted his entire off-season to individual work.The L.A. native also ran in a summer game with Lakers star Kobe Bryant andplayed (to positive reviews from NBA scouts) at the LeBron James and PaulPierce skills camps.
Sendek has alwaysbeen known as one of the nation's brainiest coaches—he graduated summa cumlaude from Carnegie-Mellon—and he's eager to cultivate Harden's elevated hoopsIQ. "One thing I've tried to do with James is have a dialogue withhim," Sendek explains. "I'm curious to find out what he likes, what hedoesn't like, where he's comfortable and what we can take advantage of, notjust in our planning but even as the game is going on."
With Harden and6'9" senior forward Jeff Pendergraph, a third-team all-conferenceselection, the Sun Devils have the firepower to contend for a title in theweakened Pac-10 and earn the NCAA tournament berth that was denied them lastyear, after a bitter loss to USC (which included a dodgy last-minute foul call)in the league tournament. That was one of the reasons behind Harden's decisionto pass up the NBA draft and return to Tempe. "I needed to work on severalthings before I was ready to make that move," says Harden. "I was stillyoung and didn't just want to be a one-and-done guy. I want to get to thetournament and make a run there."
Mississippi Valley State
at San Diego State
IUPUI (in Phoenix)
BYU (in Glendale, Ariz.)
Central Connecticut State
*76 Classic, inAnaheim (also Baylor, Cal State--Fullerton, Providence, Saint Mary's, UTEP,Wake Forest)
The Sun Devils' soft schedule won't impress the NCAA selection committee, butthe team could get a reading of its Pac-10 chances—and improve its RPI—at the76 Classic if it can beat Charlotte and advance, perhaps, to play Baylor andmaybe even Wake Forest, two likely tournament teams.
Herb Sendek (3rd year)
Luke Winn explains how James Harden's supporting backcourt cast could helpArizona State challenge the Pac-10 powerhouses.
GEORGE HOLLAND/CAL SPORT MEDIA
Wide-open In the depleted Pac-10, Harden's return makes Arizona State a contender.