ASU reaches, doesn’t exceed, season expectations

Another Arizona State basketball season is in the books and this one finished, more or less, within the margin of error.

The Sun Devils were picked to finish seventh in the Pac-12 Media Poll at the season’s outset and finished in a five-way logjam tie for third place behind Arizona and UCLA, and the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament, at 21-12 overall and 10-8 in regular season league play.

Arizona and UCLA were clearly better and more talented even if the Sun Devils did earn a signature win over the then-No. 2 ranked Wildcats in Tempe. A closer look at the rest of the league tells us that Colorado, Oregon and Stanford were athletically more talented than the Sun Devils and Cal and Utah were close in that respect.

The NCAA Tournament has demonstrated the league’s No. 3 rating was justified, with three teams advancing to the Sweet 16. ASU made the field for the second time in Sendek’s tenure, losing at the buzzer in its opener to Texas, but represented itself well in that effort.

A synopsis of the Sun Devils is they were only going to go as far as sophomore Jahii Carson was willing or able to drive them, and it was difficult to feel as though he didn’t have one foot outside the vehicle the entire time.

Going back nearly a year ago to the press conference Carson had to announce he’d be returning to school, an occasion on which he also took the time to say the following season would be his last in Tempe. It seemed clear he’d already made up his mind instead of basing it on his performance and resulting projecting NBA Draft status.

ASU coach Herb Sendek stripped his offense down more than any of his eight seasons in Tempe, essentially building it to feature Carson on most of the team’s offensive possessions, but the enigmatic point guard never transcended from very good player to true leader.

You saw this in his defensive effort more than anything else. Often, the Sun Devils felt the need to hide Carson on that end of the floor as opposed to putting him on opponents’ point guard, or even its best guard. His steals, deflections and floor burns all way under-performed someone with his level of quickness and change of direction.

Offensively, increasingly familiarly with Carson’s game pigeon-holed him against better and more disciplined defenses. They sag hedged or soft switched on ball screens and Carson wasn’t able to make them pay off the long jumper — something he’ll have to do to succeed at the NBA level, and channeled him left, where his lack of an explosive dribble and ability to finish with his off hand proved further limiting.

The reality is Carson didn’t get better between his first and second college season, and perhaps didn’t appreciate enough how much he’d have to do so in order to accomplish what he hopes to professionally. Or maybe he just wasn’t entirely focused on the Sun Devils and had a mind already wandering to the next chapter of his career.

Regardless, the Sun Devils weren’t going to overachieve relatively to their peers in the league without an improved Carson propelling that success in a leadership capacity, with teammates matching a higher gear defensively that was rarely demonstrated.

As far as the overall fan base malaise that seems to be slowly taking rise around Sendek, that’s a subject for another day.