When Jahii Carson arrived in Tempe, the switch flipped.
After a pair of dismal seasons led to growing fan apathy, Carson's appearance and subsequent emergence helped reunite a fractured fan base. Though the Sun Devils lacked depth and a supporting cast, the play of the standout freshman helped breed interest and expectations for the basketball program.
As the team wrapped up a 22-win season with an NIT loss to the Baylor Bears, it became easy to sense the fan unrest. All of a sudden, Arizona State fans were back to caring about their basketball team, and that meant that an NIT appearance simply wasn't good enough.
Fans take many different approaches to criticizing the teams they love, but quite often, they thrust their blame upon the Head Coach. In this case, Sun Devil fans have openly voiced their concerns about whether or not Herb Sendek is the right man for the job at Arizona State.
As the offseason begins and the seasons turn, House of Sparky's Kerry Crowley and Cory Williams join in on the fan debate about the future of Sendek and Arizona State basketball.
Kerry: In my opinion, Coach Sendek has earned at least one more season to prove himself in his role. In his seven seasons as Head Coach at Arizona State, Sendek has posted five 20-win seasons and lured two incredible talents in James Harden and Jahii Carson to the program. Arizona State has never been known as a basketball school, but with the exception of two seasons, Sendek has made the Sun Devils relevant in the Pac-12 scene. Last season, Sendek took a leap of faith by putting the offense in the hands of a freshman and it paid off. The Sun Devils were in nearly every game because of Carson and if he returns, Sendek has the chance to cash in and turn Arizona State into an NCAA tournament contender again.
Cory: Being a sports fan is all about expectations. Throughout the Herb Sendek years, Arizona State basketball has toed a precarious line between good, bad and mediocre. One constant has been fan apathy. Are fans truly apathetic, or are they simply tired of the low expectations for the basketball program? ASU cannot compare itself to UCLA, but the Bruins just fired their head coach after being regular season Pac-12 champions and earning a 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament. If UCLA can view such achievements as unacceptable for their program, what does it say to Sun Devil fans who saw Herb Sendek's contract extension occur in the midst of a 10-win season? It might be an indication that expectations for the basketball program should continue to be tempered.
Kerry: The fan apathy and low expectations for the basketball program are often disappointing, but I think it's important to remember that the fans did come out in full force when they saw a glimmer of hope in this Sun Devil team. Early in the season, ASU struggled to fill seats in the lower bowl at Wells Fargo because fans simply didn't expect greatness. By the end of the season, the games were well attended and people thought it a travesty that the Sun Devils failed to reach the NCAA tournament. That shows that Arizona State fans want their basketball team to be viable and respectable. However, Herb Sendek has a track record as a viable and respectable coach. Though he may not be among the game's elite, I find it hard to believe the program could lure a better coach to Tempe right now. Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart turned down UCLA, and I'm not even convinced Andy Enfield from Florida Gulf Coast would have accepted the ASU job over USC. If Sendek can convince Carson to stay for another season, real expectations will begin to form. Fans want to see Carson succeed, and they won't accept anything less than a tournament bid. When the fan base demands greatness, the head coaching position at ASU may become more desirable and if Sendek doesn't thrive, Arizona State will find someone else who will. Until that point, it's time to let Sendek get the most out of the existing pieces within the program.
Cory: Ah, the eternal conundrum. Does success breed fan expectation, or does fan expectation breed success? One could argue that the ASU football team has been driven by the fan expectations hoisted upon it. First, Dennis Erickson was fired. Then, June Jones' hire was put on hold thanks to booster pressure. Finally, Todd Graham has the team firing on all cylinders and we're entering a season of excitement and expectation.
When we look at ASU basketball, we're asking to go the other way around. "Lets build it and they will come." It's simply very hard to build a program in the Pac-12 these days. The top echelon of the conference has been static for a while, save for a few changes -- UCLA, Arizona, Washington, Cal ... these are the teams you see winning games and going to the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis. Not saying it's impossible to build a program right now, it's just difficult to see Herb Sendek's next year being too much different than the last seven in terms of expectations and results. Then again, it's difficult to see anyone else coming in and turning us into a superpower tomorrow, either.
Kerry: So many of the expectations hinge on whether or not Jahii Carson will be back for next season. If he does suit up for the maroon and gold, there will be plenty of ticket sales and fan pressure on Sendek to succeed. If Carson turns pro, Sendek will have to hit the recruiting trails hard to snag the necessary talent to win with.
At the moment, it looks like Arizona State is content with Herb Sendek in his position, but it will be interesting to see how everything shakes out next year.