Scott Bordow: The NCAA tournament is where stars are born. Every once in a while, a special player will lead an average team – at least by tournament standards – on a three-week magical mystery tour. Which brings us to James Harden.
MIAMI - In 1979, a pasty-skinned kid named Larry Bird led Indiana State to the NCAA title game.
Nine years later, unranked Kansas won the national championship thanks to the leadership and singular performance of Danny Manning.
Just last year, Stephen Curry shot Davidson College into the Elite Eight.
The NCAA tournament is where stars are born. Every once in a while, a special player will lead an average team – at least by tournament standards – on a three-week magical mystery tour.
Which brings us to James Harden.
Harden came to Arizona State because he wanted to change the culture in Tempe, to turn the losses into wins and the ridicule into respect.
He’s done that. Now, he has the opportunity – and the talent – to leave ASU with a deep tournament run as part of his legacy.
“This is NCAA tournament time, so everyone steps up their game and I have to do the same thing,” Harden said.
There’s no question Harden has the chops to guide ASU to the Sweet 16 or beyond. He’s projected to be a top-five pick in the NBA draft. Temple coach Fran Dunphy, who will see Harden in person for the first time Friday – said NBA scouts have told him they liken his game to Boston Celtics’ star Paul Pierce.
“That’s pretty lofty company,” Dunphy said.
Clearly, the Sun Devils aren’t a one-man band. Jeff Pendergraph leads the nation in field goal shooting percentage, Derek Glasser has matured into an accomplished point guard, and Rihards Kuksiks and Ty Abbott can be threats from 3-point range.
But let’s be honest: ASU will go only as far as Harden will take it.
“He’s the motor to their vehicle, man,” Temple guard Dionte Christmas said. “He makes those guys go.”
Harden’s brilliance isn’t easy to define. He rarely makes the spectacular play and there are games in which you swear he isn’t doing much and then you look at the box score and he has 22 points, eight rebounds and four assists.
“I think the beauty of James’ game is that he makes good decisions,” coach Herb Sendek said. “He can impact our offense in ways beyond scoring. … I think he has a real good feel for things.”
If there’s a concern about Harden, however, it’s that he sometimes will float through games, preferring to set up teammates rather than establish his dominance. He took just nine shots in ASU’s 84-71 loss to Washington on Jan. 31. A week later, he was 2 for 9 from the field with only three assists in the Sun Devils’ 49-38 victory over Oregon State.
That unselfishness is an admirable trait; Harden is the rare superstar whose ego doesn’t swallow up his teammates. But it can also be dangerous come the NCAA tournament; there’s no second chance after an off night.
That doesn’t mean Harden has to become a me-first player who thinks he has the green light every time he touches the ball. But he can’t take the first half off Friday, either.
“I think my teammates want me to be more assertive not just scoring the ball but making plays, and that’s what I’m going to do,” he said.
With the exception of ASU’s two games against USC – Trojans guard Daniel Hackett seems to be in Harden’s head – Harden has shown a knack to come up big in big games.
He had 24 points, nine rebounds and four assists against Washington in the Pac-10 tournament. In ASU’s 74-67 victory over UCLA on Feb. 12, he was a triple threat with 15 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds.
“I’m not too worried about James,” Pendergraph said. “He’s a big-time player and a big-time guy when the lights are on.”
You wouldn’t know that by listening to Harden. He talks about the tournament with the same passion as he might a history test.
But he knows. He knows the Sun Devils are counting on him. He knows NBA scouts are watching him. He knows this has to be his moment, when he grabs the reins and doesn’t let go.
Getting the Sun Devils into the NCAA tournament is a nice accomplishment.
But now he can make history.