The Arizona State men’s basketball team saw its season come to an end with a whimper on Wednesday night.
The Sun Devils were the lowest seed in the Pac-10 Tournament and looked the part, falling 76-69 to Oregon in the first round to finish the season 12-19 and 4-15 in the conference.
For the first time since Herb Sendek took over as coach five years ago, Arizona State took a step back, and now the program seems to be at a crucial crossroads.
Rewind to early October, and everything seemed to be humming right along.
The Sun Devils had improved their conference record in each of the first four years under Sendek, and won 22 games last season even after the defection of star James Harden to the NBA.
Much-hyped recruit Keala King was coming into the program to spearhead the transition, and the 2011 recruiting class looked promising, too. Mesa High star point guard Jahii Carson was already on board, and Arizona State was high on the list of Jabari Brown, the fifth ranked shooting guard in the country, and four-star small forward Juan Anderson.
Then, it came crashing down.
Anderson chose Marquette on Oct. 6, Brown chose Oregon one day later and the Sun Devils had their worst season since Sendek’s first year in 2006-07.
Much is expected from Carson next season, and if King, Trent Lockett and Jordan Bachynski can show progress, it could be a quick turnaround.
However, another subpar season and Arizona State will go from the intriguing up-and-comer on the Pac-10 scene back to its familiar place in the bottom half of the conference.
There’s no questioning Sendek’s strategic intelligence. At practices and on game days, he is one of the best coaches in the conference.
But he has to get it done on the recruiting trail, as well.
Harden has been the unquestioned recruiting coup during Sendek’s time in Tempe, but the current Oklahoma City Thunder sixth man went to ASU largely because his high school coach, Scott Pera, got a job there.
Carson seems like another solid pick-up, but he is the only player in the 2011 recruiting class.
In Arizona alone, players like Westwind Prep’s DeMarquise Johnson and Corona del Sol’s Calaen Robinson would be good additions in the class of 2012.
If the Sun Devils played better this season or kept their momentum on the recruiting trail, it likely would have made the decision much easier for those players.
Instead, Sendek needs to again show some strides next season, or worry about being an also-ran in a conference that is getting an infusion of talent next year. For the Sun Devil faithful, it’s an all-too-familiar position.
One down season isn’t enough to rid all the goodwill Sendek has earned by turning around the program, but sustaining it is the key, and there may not be a more important season in his tenure than 2011-12.