Is Arizona State a Pac-12 sleeper?

By Jon Rothstein | CBS Sports

Jahii Carson should shine in what could be his last year of college ball. (USATSI)
Jahii Carson should shine in what could be his last year of college ball. (USATSI)

TEMPE, Az. -- Jahii Carson just walked to the side of the court and smiled.

"Night and day," Carson said recently after a brief workout with Arizona State teammates. "The options we have on this team are night and day compared to what we had last year."

The Sun Devils won 22 games a season ago and lost to Baylor in the second round of the NIT. At the end of the season, starting guard Evan Gordon transferred to Indiana while Carrick Felix was selected by Cleveland in the second round of the NBA Draft.

But even with those defections, Carson's proclamation is right. Arizona State will have a greater number of capable contributors than it did last season.

"I like our team very much," Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said recently. "There's lots of interchangeable parts. We have good depth and good versatility. We're much deeper than we were last year."

The triumvirate of Carson, 7-2 center Jordan Bachynski, and 6-7 junior Jonathan Gilling gives the Sun Devils a strong base of veterans. Carson is the best point guard in the Pac-12 and Bachynski averaged 3.4 blocks per game last season. The underrated Gilling meanwhile is a lethal pick-and-pop threat who made 84 three-point shots a year ago as a sophomore.

Arguably the biggest upgrade this team made is at shooting guard, where Penn State transfer Jermaine Marshall will start. The 6-4 gunner made 59 three-point shots last season for the Nittany Lions and will be eligible to play immediately after graduating in August. Marshall averaged 15.3 points per game last year in State College and his ability to extend defenses should complement Carson's penetration ability.

"He's a proven college basketball player," Sendek said of Marshall. "He's got a wealth of experience after playing in the Big Ten. He's got a fearlessness about him that you want shooters to have."

The Sun Devils have a bevy of options at small forward. Michigan State transfer Brandan Kearney will be eligible in December and brings immediate intangibles. Freshmen Egor Koulechov meanwhile is a high IQ player at 6-5 and newcomer Shaquielle McKissic is an incredible athlete that should be lethal in transition.

"Everybody in that group has had their moments," Sendek said.

Sendek is also excited about redshirt freshmen Calean Robinson, a jet of a point guard that will backup Carson.

"He's very quick and can really create for others," Sendek said of Robinson.

Six-foot-ten sophomore Eric Jacobsen is solid as a backup to Bachynski in the post and Valparaiso transfer Richie Edwards has a chance to be this team's Brian Scalabrine.

"He's a play per minute guy," Arizona State associate head coach Eric Musselman said of the 6-7 Edwards. "He's the type of guy that could only play seven minutes but make six big plays."

Thanks to Carson's ability to get out in transition, Sendek has undergone a bit of a career transformation. Known as a slow and methodical coach during his time at NC State as well as his early years in Tempe, Sendek has adapted to his personnel and emphasized a more high octane approach.

An increased commitment to conditioning has Arizona State ready to accelerate the pace each time it takes the floor. The Sun Devils are currently working out twice per day as a team, doing skill work in the morning followed by practice later in the day.

The pieces in this group seem to fit.

Marshall is an offensive upgrade over what Gordon was last year and Kearney could be a bit of wild card when he becomes eligible thanks to his ability to affect the game without needing the ball.

In what looks to be a potential breakout year for the Pac-12, Arizona State seems ready to take a seat at the table. Picked seventh in the conference's preseason poll (and anywhere from third to eighth among CBSSports.com's experts), the Sun Devils look like a legitimate sleeper flying under-the-radar.

There may not be the buzz surrounding this group that exists at Arizona, UCLA, Oregon, or Stanford, but none of those teams have a player as electric as Carson.

The 5-10 floor general averaged 18.5 points, 5.1 assists, and 3.7 rebounds per game last year as a redshirt freshman. Now he's working relentlessly at improving his outside shot so he becomes more lethal in screen-and-roll type situations.

Another thing to keep in mind?

If officials are going to allow less contact defensively on the perimeter, it's going to make it that much more difficult for defenses to stay in front of Carson.

Sendek has already acknowledged that this will be the last collegiate season for his point guard, a player that's helped make Arizona State basketball nationally relevant again.

For Carson, there's only one thing he's thinking about before he heads to the NBA.

"The NCAA Tournament," Carson said when asked what his goals were for the upcoming year. "That's all that matters."

 
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