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Confidence building as ASU takes down CSU Northridge

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Saturday afternoon’s Arizona State Sun Devils contest may have been headlined by Jordan Bachynski’s record day; however, the game was brought to you by the word “team”.

Arizona State’s 87-76 victory against Cal State Northridge was a TEAM effort, TEAM improvement, and most importantly TEAM win.

Watching the first half of Saturday’s game in particular, you couldn’t help but get caught up in the certain difference of play the Sun Devils were operating with. It looked as if the starters specifically had all settled into their roles on the team.

There’s Jonathan Gilling, the three-point specialist who also provides solid on-ball defensive play. You’ve got Jordan Bachynski, the tower in the lane swatting everything away from the basket. Don’t forget about Evan Gordon, the shooting guard who struggled early with his shot, who now looks like the best shooter on the team, while still providing the tremendous guard defense that has been there all season. Of course there’s Jahii Carson, the high-profile freshman who, amidst this increase of offensive achievement around him, has started to feed his teammates, as well as take the ball to the hoop. Then there’s the leader of that group, Carrick Felix, leading with his play in all phases of the game including the vocal department.

These roles, into which the ASU starters have fallen over the last nine games, have come during a stretch where every game there has still left a shred of doubt. A doubt that said, “well the next opponent is better; they’ll finally come back to earth after the next game,” and “yeah they won, but they had so many problems throughout, it’ll come back to haunt them in the next contest.”

With all this uncertainty hovering over the Sun Devils’ basketball team, and their continuation to endure and grow, it has lead me to think of a quote the great Pat Riley had during the Miami Heat’s 2006 championship run. “You know while everyone has been kind of picking them apart they have quietly been becoming a team.”  Now, I’m not comparing ASU to a NBA championship caliber squad; however, their improvement and progressive growth cannot be ignored.

There was a point in the first half where Arizona State’s confidence was absolutely exuberant. Carrick Felix registered back-to-back crowd-raising breakaway dunks. Then, a few possessions later, Evan Gordon, at that point 3-for-4 from long distance, fired up a three in the corner and started his side step back to the other end of the court knowing the shot was good before it swished through the net. The stretch was then capped by yet another Felix breakaway dunk that deviated from the usual two-hand slam and upgraded to a house-shaking windmill. Confidence was present, and it was a glorious entity to watch.

This stretch of both excitement and confidence was highlighted by Coach Sendek in his post-game press conference as he called it “a key turning point in the game.” Before that stretch of basketball ASU was up 31-26, and after Felix’s windmill the score was 40-29 Sun Devils.

Although Cal State Northridge refused to go away in the second half with timely threes and layups, the Sun Devils remained poised. A team that earlier in the year would bail out opposing defenses with ill-advised three-point attempts, in the second half moved the ball around, penetrated, kicked it out and was patient enough to wait for the correct shot. This can largely be attributed to Jahii Carson’s growing maturity and decision making with the basketball, as well as Carrick Felix’s additional judgment when he puts pressure on the interior defense. Felix smiled in the post-game press conference as his decision-making was mentioned and answered he could not recollect the last game he played without registering a turnover, as he did against the Matadors Saturday afternoon.

Felix’s smile was a bit of a trend after the game, as a sense of looseness could be felt from both coach Sendek and Felix as they spoke to the media. Felix walked into the room chuckling as he mentioned “I’ll come in here with a haircut next time.” Sendek also joked around with the media after mentioning “usually when you see a triple-double it’s points, rebounds, and assists; rarely do you see it with blocked shots.” The ASU coach went on to joke “I think I did it once at Carnegie Melon,” and when asked if he had film on that replied, joking again “yeah it’s on beta.”

These minute jokes, here and there might seem minuscule on the surface, however, when you dig deeper it goes back to that increasing confidence and feeling that the team is playing well.

Of the three ASU team members who did speak, the player who registered the first triple-double in school history, Jordan Bachynski, was the one man who was not joking around with the media. Bachynski instead was a bit intense, talking about his development as a player to this point, how he took his lack of minutes in the second half against Hartford personally, and his declaration: “we’re a force to be reckoned with.”

Bachynski’s somewhat intense press conference was capped by looking back at last year’s loss against DePaul and ahead to the next game against the Blue Demons “This to me is a personal game because last year they took it to us in Florida. We’re going to get that win. I’m going to work as hard as we can to get that win.” Bachynski’s confidence led me to ask if that was a guarantee. The 7’2” center declined to label his statement as a “guarantee” however, his confidence could still be felt.

Now, ASU’s effort was not without fault as Sendek stated: “We’re still striving as a team to put 40 minutes together,” he said, citing the Matadors string of threes that kept the game close late. Besides those defensive hiccups, this may have been the Sun Devils’ closest attempt toward a “full 40 minutes” thus far.

Confidence flowing, shots falling down, and constant progression against Cal State Northridge may have led to a few more people asking for a cup of the Maroon flavored Kool-Aid ASU has been handing out. It’s a Kool-Aid that has been mixed together slowly and carefully with the ingredients confidence, fundamentals, and team basketball.

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