On March 22, 2009, Arizona State's Ty Abbott made a 3-point shot with 6:38 remaining in the Sun Devils' NCAA tournament game against Syracuse, pulling Herb Sendek's team to within four points of the Orange. A win that day would have put ASU into the Sweet 16, and that, to say the least, would have been a very big deal. Put it this way: The last time the Sun Devils reached the Sweet 16, Bill Clinton was still in his first term as president.
Instead, Syracuse finished the game on a 17-10 run and won 78-67. Arizona State went home. That 2009 group, which was powered by James Harden and Jeff Pendergraph, was arguably the best Sun Devils team of the past 15 years.
And yet anyone who looks at how the Sun Devils have performed over the past three seasons has an odd paradox to report. Though Harden and Pendergraph both left the program after that Syracuse loss, Arizona State went 12-6 in the Pac-10 the following season and came within a whisker of making the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive season. In other words, Sendek was able replace Harden and Pendergraph but, judging from last season (4-14 in the Pac-10), he couldn't replace Eric Boateng and Derek Glasser, both of whom left after the 2009-10 season. Who saw that coming?
Which brings us to today. Though leading scorer Trent Lockett returns, Sendek is faced with the prospect of replacing three mainstays from last season's team: Abbott, Jamelle McMillan and Rihards Kuksiks. Losing three starters from a last-place team isn't customarily a recipe for notable success the following season. Then again the Sun Devils aren't necessarily looking for a Final Four run in 2012. Mere progress will suffice.
Let's break down the key aspects of ASU's game that will dictate how far the Devils go in 2011-12.