ASU Basketball: Sun Devils place NCAA tournament on back burner, eye Pac-12 tournament run

Ralph Freso

Arizona State is heading into the Pac-12 tournament focused on making a run in the conference tournament and solidifying its NCAA tournament resume.

Over the past few years the Arizona State basketball team has found itself on the wrong side of the bubble more often than not. In 2008, James Harden led the Sun Devils to a 19-12 record and a No. 5 seed in the Pac-12 tournament.

The Sun Devils fell to USC in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament and did not hear their name called on Selection Sunday that year, instead earning a No. 1 seed in the NIT.

Last season, Arizona State started the season 20-7 before losing its final four regular season games. The Sun Devils went 1-1 in the conference tournament and once again ended their season in the NIT.

This season, Herb Sendek and company are weary of looking too far ahead to Sunday afternoon, when they will learn their tournament fate. Instead, the Sun Devils are eyeing a run in the conference tournament.

"You always help yourself by continuing to win," said Sendek. "We are not going to spend a lot of time or energy trying to handicap the different scenarios. It behooves us to go into the tournament with all of our energy invested in Thursday night's game."

For the first time since the Pac-12 expanded to 12 teams, the Sun Devils will receive a first-round bye in the conference tournament. Thanks to multiple tie breakers, the Sun Devils enter the Pac-12 tournament as the No. 3 seed, earning them an extra day of rest.

"I think that us having the No. 3 seed helps us, it gives us a bit of a rest," said Jahii Carson. "I think we are going to have a lot of momentum coming in, I know all the guys are excited and we like our odds."

For the second straight year, the conference tournament will take place at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. This bodes well for the Sun Devils, as their star point guard shines brightest under the lights of Sin City.

In five games in Las Vegas, Carson is averaging 28.8 points per game, he is shooting 60-percent from the field and is 7-12 from beyond the arc in those games.

Three of Carson's four highest scoring games of his career have come in Las Vegas, including his only career 40-point game earlier this season against UNLV.

"I feel like it is showtime in Vegas," said Carson. "Everybody has all the energy, the gambling is going around and I feel like people are there to see a show so I try to put one on for them."

Arizona State will play the winner of Wednesday night's game between No. 6 Stanford and No. 11 Washington State. The Sun Devils split with the Cardinal this season, falling in Palo Alto and beating Stanford at home. Arizona State beat Washington State in Tempe in the only matchup of the season between the two schools.

While fans will look ahead to Sunday's selection show to see where Arizona State falls, the Sun Devils have a more imminent goal. Hoisting their first Pac-12 championship banner to solidify their tournament resume. A resume that Jordan Bachynski feels is not yet completed.

"We are not in yet, and that's something that I don't think a lot of people realize," said Bachynski. "We are not in the tournament yet. It's not a sure thing. We are taking these games seriously. We have never hung a banner in Wells (Fargo Arena) and that's still a goal of ours."

Arizona State has struggled historically in the Pac-12 tournament. Before last season's overtime victory over Stanford, the Sun Devils had not won a conference tournament game since 2009, when James Harden powered Arizona State to the tournament's championship game.

After losing their final two regular season games, Arizona State isn't necessarily riding to Las Vegas with a lot of momentum. However, they have been here before, after back-to-back losses to the Rocky Mountain schools, Arizona State responded with two key victories in late February over Stanford and California.

Now, the Sun Devils are out to prove that they can win key games away from home.

"I feel like as a team we always respond well," said Bachynski. "We have had a tough time on the road, but we always respond the right way. We just need to reset our minds and prepare for this next game."

So forget the field of 68, the Sun Devils are more focused on the field of 12. For Arizona State, it starts on Thursday night on Fox Sports 1. As Carson put it, the Sun Devils are just looking to have a little fun in the city of sin over the next four days.

"We know that if we win the Pac-12 tournament or we have a great winning streak in the conference (tournament) that it's going to help our NCAA tournament chances and seeding. So we are looking to have fun in the Pac-12 tournament and make some noise."

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