Good thing the Arizona Wildcats took care of that with their stirring win over #4 Gonzaga and left the duty of a win by a nationally-ranked team to Arizona State.
By no means it was pretty, but today's 59-58 overtime win over IUPUI is definitely the Devils most impressive yet nervewracking victory of the young season.
There's nothing good to say, obviously, about being down 34-18 at the half. I don't care how good or bad the Jaguars are; let's be realistic; IUPUI might not be Baylor, but they're definitely not Jackson State and, arguably, could have been a mid-major to watch if George Hill had stayed around; it's not like the Sun Devils were playing a total pushover.
In the first half, IUPUI simply outclassed, outplayed and outshot ASU. The Devils were disoriented, careless with the ball and generally numb while shooting 7-for-22 and falling behind by 16 by the end of the 1st 20 minutes. It was the kind of play we saw out of Herb Sendek's squad during his first season in Tempe.
In the second half, we saw the Devils everyone has seen so far this season and we expect to see throughout the rest of this campaign. Ty Abbott was poised, James Harden was dominant (that slam dunk even brought Amare Stoudemire out of his seat) and Rihards Kuksiks played maybe the best 20 minutes of his college career thus far. It was a 180 from the first half; the Devils played like a team that could drive deep into March.
As far as I can remember, when the Devils silpped into the that man-to-man defensive strategy that coach Sendek seems to consider taboo, it was the first time I've seen it since early...EARLY...last season. However, as I've clamored for before, ASU has seemed so stuck in the matchup zone on defense that they have had no ability to adjust when teams (aka Baylor) seem to have no ability to miss from the outside. When the Jaguars shot over 50% in the 1st half and nailed four three-pointers late, it was another one of those situations where you asked yourself why the Devils would stick to the zone.
Finally, this time, they didn't. And it worked, as the Devils clawed their way back into a tie and drastically reudced the Jags shooting percentage.
The other thing that I feel has been addressed over the last few games have been the complaints that James Harden has been controlling too much of the offensive production. Today, four of the five starters hit double figures. Surprise! James Harden only had 9!
On that note, I really feel like Kuksiks is really coming into his own as a force on this team and quite possibly this team's go-to scorer who isn't named James Harden (and if you haven't voted, vote in the poll about this). The Latvian was aggressive toward the boards, grabbing nine, and even showed some mettlle in the paint, driving the lane and forcing shots.
This was a gut check. Every college power or potential March darling has to fight their way through a rough game against an inferior opponent at some point during the season. Kansas had to fight off a pesky Arizona (ironic?) last season. Memphis, their opponent in the National Title game, barely slipped by UAB and Mississippi State. Kansas themselves just lost to lowly UMass this weekend and #8 Tennessee was blown out on the road by Temple.
Am I saying we should be thankful that the Devils barely eked out a win against an overmatched opponent? Of course not. Just take the struggle with a grain of salt; it was bound to happen at some point, and with the guts they showed clawing back from that 17-point deficit, it might just be a needed wake-up call as the time towards Pac-10 play quickly ticks down.
(edit) Just remembered a point I forgot to make when I first published this post. I know it's the holiday season, I know the Cardinals were playing, I know that the economy is rough and there are more things to do with your time on a Sunday afternoon, but it's pretty much a consensus amongst everyone that there were barely 2,000 fans in the building at tipoff. Are you SERIOUS? Come on, Pitchfork Nation! We've clamored for a relevant men's basketball team for years, and this is how Sun Devil Nation supports a long-sought after winner?