TEMPE, Ariz. Arizona State opens the second half of the Pac-12 season with a clear path to a postseason tournament, which would be a first for every player on the roster.
The Sun Devils have not been to the NCAA tournament since the James Harden days. But they dutifully aware of maintaining the focus on the present and on the process that has carried them to one of the best starts in recent school history.
We cant look too far into the future, junior center Jordan Bachynski said. "We just have to take one game at a time, one practice at a time and just play hard and play our game. I know that if we do that, the tournament is definitely within our reach.
We have to be everyday guys. We cant just show up one day and be nonexistent the next. We know what to do, and we are doing it.
The NCAA tournament, of course, is the tournament of choice, although the NIT appears to be a fallback lock after a strong first half that has brought the Sun Devils to 17-5 and 6-3 in the Pac-12. ASU is one game behind league co-leaders Arizona and Oregon, and it has not started this quickly since the Byron ScottFat LeverAlton Lister team was 8-1 in 1980-81.
The Sun Devils have put together an NCAA tournament resume highlighted by a signature blowout victory over UCLA, and they will begin the Pac-12 back nine with home games against California (13-8, 5-4) and Stanford (14-8, 5-4) this weekend. It is the only time the schools will meet this season, and a sweep would give ASU a tiebreaker advantage in the quest for a possible first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament the second week of March. The Cal game is Thursday night at Wells Fargo; Stanford visits Saturday afternoon.
ASU is certainly saying all the right things.
We have a good chance, but I think we are not there yet, senior leader Carrick Felix said of a berth in the 68-team NCAA field. "We definitely can play with the best of them, but we definitely have some stuff to brush up on and get better.
"I think we definitely can become a tournament team. Its something we definitely think about and talk about, but with that said we just want to take each day at a time. We know that is the most important thing right now.
ASU, to those who did not see freshman point guard Jahii Carson coming, has been the surprise team of the Pac-12. Carson, Felix, Bachynski, transfer guard Evan Gordon and holdover forward Jonathan Gilling have their fingerprints all over the Pac-12 statistics.
Carson, who had a career-high 32 points in a 96-92 loss at Washington on Saturday, is leading the Pac-12 in scoring with a 19.1 average in league play and is third in assists.
Felix is averaging 14.7 points and 8.8 rebounds, and he also guards the opponents top wing. Look for him to spend a lot of time on Cals leading scorer, off guard Allen Crabbe, who is averaging 17.4 points a game.
Bachynski leads the conference in blocked shots by a good margin and is ninth in rebounding. Gilling is in the top 12 in rebounds, assists and 3-pointers made, and Gordon is in the top 10 in 3-pointers made. Carson (38.1), Felix (37.9) and Gilling (37.1) also are in the top four in minutes played, along with Crabbe (38.1).
The Sun Devils have a challenging schedule moving forward. They have five road games among their last nine, including a final three at UCLA, USC and Arizona. They also play at Colorado next week and have the second game of their home-and-home against Washington at Wells Fargo Arena the week after that.
At the same time, ASU not only has proved something to outsiders at the point but also can take a quiet confidence into the second half.
I think we have learned that we can play with the best of them. We just need to continue to learn that we can play with the best of them, and not to let teams get the upper edge on us sometimes, Felix said. We just need to continue to chop wood and continue to get better. Continue to talk to each other. Continue to play defense. Continue to share the ball. That is something we are getting better at.
The lesson from the Washington game was to play stronger in the paint. ASU shot 64 percent from the field and went 12 for 19 from 3-point range against the Huskies, but that strong offensive display was undermined by a 36-20 rebounding disadvantage. Washington had 19 second-chance points and 50 points in the paint. The numbers were not lost on ASU, especially in preparation for Stanford, which has the more physical front line of the two Bay Area teams.
We just have to be more physical. Me, especially, I got housed on the boards, Bachynski said in critiquing the Washington game. I did not do well boxing them out. A big part of that was playing straight up, not bending my knees when going for a rebound. It is really tough, but I have to do that, and if I do that I will be a lot more effective.
Added Felix: They (Washington) definitely hopped up that game, and they were very physical. We cant let teams do that. We have to at least match them, or be more physical than them.
"I think well be fine. Well come back.