After dropping consecutive games for the first time this season, including a humbling defeat to rival Arizona on its home court, Arizona State had the look of a vulnerable team teetering trying to stay afloat. But when the final horn buzzer sounded last Saturday and the crowd at Wells Fargo Arena erupted, celebrating the team's the first home sweep of the southern California schools since 2010, there was a feeling that maybe this Sun Devil squad has a little more fight left in them than they were being given credit for.
ASU has not-so-quietly become a dark horse in the league, already having taken down UCLA and Colorado (14-6, 4-4), two teams many expected to contend for the conference crown this season, while losing by only three points to the current Pac-12 leader, Oregon (18-2, 7-0), on the road.
It's been three years since the Sun Devils experienced this kind of success on the hardwood, but it's something both Carrick Felix and Jahii Carson feel very comfortable dealing with after consecutive losing seasons.
"I think we'll handle it well," said Felix of the recent attention his team has been receiving. "We got a big win against Colorado as well. I think with us winning against UCLA, we're in the right spot right now. I think our talk is good, just within the team and the players. I think our coaching staff and everyone is approaching it the right way."
"I just think we have to be mature about the situation," added Carson. "We can't just go and run with it and get too much confidence. It's been a great season for us. We still have a long way to go, but we just have to maintain being humble."
Despite the fast start and surprising win over a UCLA (16-5, 6-2) team that had been playing as well as anyone in the country in recent weeks, winners of 11 of their last 12 games prior to last Saturday, the Sun Devils found themselves unranked when this week's Top 25 polls were announced on Sunday. Despite still being on the outside looking in, the two Sun Devil playmakers say they're too focus on the task at hand to be bothered by national standings.
"I don't think we're there yet," admitted Carson. "I think we have to take care of business against the Washington schools and then Cal and Stanford and then we should be up there. I think when we lost to UofA it (the buzz) went down a little bit but coming back and beating the southern California schools definitely gave us a little extra spark."
"I don't really pay attention to that," Felix claimed. "I just stay in the present day and just continue to get whatever I can out of each day and that's something our team is definitely doing. Whatever people are saying or wherever they're going to rank us, they're going to rank us. But at the end of the day we've got to make sure we're playing each game as hard as we can and we're practicing as hard as we can."
Third time’s the charm for Felix
On Monday, Felix was named the Pac-12's Player of the Week for a third time this season, joining James Harden, Ty Abbott, Ike Diogu, Eddie House and Mario Bennett as the only Sun Devils to ever win the award on three separate occasions. House earned those honors five times over his last two seasons at Arizona State, the most ever for the school.
Felix registered double-doubles in both games last week against the Trojans and Bruins, averaging 19.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 42 minutes in the team's two wins.
"I definitely worked all offseason to be in the position that I am now but without my team and my coaches I wouldn't be doing half the stuff I'm doing," Felix explained. "It's definitely tough being out there the whole time but I've got the lungs for it. I'm young. I'm only 22, I'm not old."
With a short rotation and little veteran presence, the Sun Devils have relied on Felix more and more as the season has wore on, while the senior has responded, seemingly out-doing himself each time out.
"It's definitely good to stay out on the court the whole time," Felix said. "I'm just trying to be a leader and an example for my guys throughout the whole 40 or 39 minutes, or however long I play. If I play 2 minutes or 3 minutes, 20 minutes, 40 minutes, I mean, I'm going to go out there and give it all I've got."
Cougs' and Dawgs
After playing five of their first seven conference games on their home floor, ASU hits the road this week to take on the Washington State Cougars (11-9, 2-5) on Thursday and the Huskies of Washington (12-8, 4-3) on Saturday.
The Sun Devils were swept last season on their swing through the state of Washington, including an embarrassing 22-point defeat at the hands of Washington State in which the Sun Devils only mustered eight first half points, the fewest ever allowed by the Cougars in the shot clock era.
"The main thing for this road trip is make sure we stay together," Felix remarked. "It's going to be a heated battle between the two Washington teams. We first go to Washington State, which last year we went up there and it wasn't a good effort.
"Definitely just let them know how the environment is going to change because now we don't have any fans, it's just us. So definitely just staying connected is going to be huge for us on the road."
While they may not be off to a very good start in conference play, the Cougars traditionally have been a very difficult team on their home floor and one Carson knows can frustrate its opponents with their tight-knit team defense.
"I've seen them on film and they're tough," he said. "They're not a shot blocking team but they're a team that causes a lot of charges on penetration and that's something that we're going to have to focus on; jump stopping, going for lay-ups and not just dunks. And just hitting the open man. They try to trap the post. (Jordan Bachynski) has been playing good so they're going to try to get him out of his game.
"We've just got to play our game. They try to occupy the weak side with their ball screens and their staggers but I think we're going to be prepared for that."
"Just make sure we execute," added Felix, on keys to winning on the road. "Make sure we do the little things to capitalize like rebounding, 50-50 balls and just running our plays all the way through.
"That's something we've been trying to get to and that's something you saw some last Saturday against UCLA. We played fast that game but there were times where we got into the half court and ran our plays and just executed."
On Tuesday, Head Coach Herb Sendek announced that the suspension for violating team rules against senior guard Chris Colvin had been lifted and that the back-up guard would be joining the Sun Devils and play starting in Thursday’s contest. Colvin, who was forced to sit out the last three games, is averaging 5.7 points and 3.6 rebounds per game for ASU as one of the first players off the bench in Coach Sendek's rotation.
"Having Chris back is definitely good just because of his leadership and the type of player he is," Felix noted. "He knows that we need him and I'm glad he's back."
So is Carson, who in Colvin's absence has averaged 38 minutes per game as the team's only primary point guard. In the Sun Devils' recent loss to Arizona, Carson struggled with foul trouble, picking up his fourth foul with nearly 10 minutes remaining in the second half, limiting his effectiveness down the stretch as the Wildcats pulled away for the win in Tempe.
"With him being out, I couldn't play as aggressive," said Carson. "I couldn't go to the basket as much and maybe get a little bit injured and have to come out of the game but now it's time for me to unleash a little bit more and be a little more aggressive on defense and offense."
In Colvin's absence though has come the emergence of junior guard Evan Gordon, who has seemingly re-discovered his shooting touch and given the Sun Devils a legitimate outside scoring threat as of late.
Since Colvin's suspension, Gordon has averaged 18 points and 41 minutes per game, including all 45 in the overtime win against USC. Despite that though, Sendek feels Colvin's return gives Arizona State even more balance and doesn't feel there will be a negative effect to the team's recent success.
"I thought we had good chemistry with him in the rotation as well, so I don't perceive that to be an issue one way or another," said the coach. "I think Chris is having a pretty good season for us.
"They can play together. I don't see it as a disruption as much as it is an enhancement."