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ASU Basketball: Return to NCAA Tournament the main goal for Sun Devils

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A second straight trip to the big dance would be the first for Arizona State since the 1981.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Last time the Arizona State Sun Devils made consecutive NCAA Tournament trips, the year was 1981. The team entered that season's tournament as a two seed but was upset by Kansas in its opening game.

34 years later, the Sun Devils will try to accomplish the same feat for the first time since those two campaigns.

It won't be easy. The Maroon and Gold lose their top three leading scorers from a team that exited in the first round of the big dance a year ago. Their primary ball handler is gone, as is his sidekick in the backcourt.

But some of the pieces are there. Freshman point guard Tra Holder has a lot of raw talent, and Bo Barnes and Shaquille McKissic will provide the senior leadership needed to compete in the Pac-12.

After that, though, things get tricky. There is not a lot of proven depth on the roster, and it's not like coach Herb Sendek can put all five starters on the court for 40 straight minutes and expect to consistently win games.

Nevertheless, the team thinks a return to the NCAA Tournament is a reasonable goal for the 2014-15 season. "Our motto right now is 'return and advance' back to the NCAA Tournament," Barnes said. "That would be our ultimate goal."

As last year's Sun Devils entered the home stretch of their run towards March Madness, it wasn't Jahii Carson, largely considered to be their top player, making the plays in the final moments of big games. Rather it was players like Jermaine Marshall or Jordan Bachynski. They were important players, sure, but not the ones you would expect to come through with the game on the line. This year's team needs to find those couple players if it expects to make another run.

With teams like Arizona, Stanford, and Utah all with top 25 talent, it's going to be a tall challenge for Arizona State to make its way through the Pac-12 with a good enough record to gain an at-large bid. The conference tournament, where you have to win four games in four days in order to gain the league's automatic bid, might be the team's best shot at going to the NCAA's.

"We want to win the Pac-12 Tournament," said sophomore guard Chance Murray. "That is really important for us." Arizona State has not advanced past the tournament's quarterfinals since 2009.

As far as personal goals go, Murray says he wants to be hungrier on the defensive end bring more energy to the team. The team ranked No. 156 in the nation last year in points allowed and was No. 278 in steals per game.

"Right now the goal is to just become a team," senior Jonathan Gilling said. "This early in the year, we don't really want to think about the NCAA Tournament. Coming together is the biggest thing."

The team has a month to come together and prepare for the beginning of its season. With some marquee nonconference games early on, a run to a second straight postseason berth will need to start early.