For now, Devils own Pac-10
The king is dead; long live the king.
Even as Stanford stumbled on the road against Boston College last week, dropping perilously close to .500 with its second loss in a row and fourth loss of the season, the heir to Tara VanDerveer's throne atop the Pac-10 was guiding her team to its eighth straight win and a perfect start in conference play.
Stanford has since rebounded with wins over USC and UCLA to improve to 3-1 in the Pac-10. But having already suffered four losses this season, the Cardinal could be considered down at the moment. However, with Charli Turner Thorne's Arizona State team on the scene, the Pac-10 is anything but out.
It's amazing how tightly we still cling to regional identities and distinctions in this day and age, even as airlines whip us from coast to coast in about the time it takes Big Apple commuters to drive 20 miles home, and the ubiquitous Best Buy/Borders/Bed, Bath & Beyond strip malls sprout in every suburb from Issaquah, Wash., to Farmington, Conn.
Or maybe it's exactly because we've never been more alike that we seek out any chance to protect our geographic individualism. It makes it easier to scrape the snow off your car in the morning or suffer through another summer of strangling humidity if you believe your corner of the world has the best people, the best food and the best sports teams.
All of which is to say, it's time for fans in the Eastern, Central and Mountain time zones to stop ignoring Pac-10 teams not named Stanford. Sure, the sun might shine a little more steadily in Arizona and Southern California and the trees might grow a little larger in the Pacific Northwest, but basketball is basketball.
Arizona State (3-0, 12-1) knocked off Washington, which had beaten Stanford on its way to opening 2-0 in conference play, last Thursday to remain tied for first place in the conference. With Arizona governor Janet Napolitano on the bench in Tempe as a guest coach, the game was about as aesthetically pleasing as the most negative of political campaigns. The Sun Devils and Huskies combined to shoot 41 percent from the floor, 53 percent from the free-throw line and commit 45 turnovers against 27 assists.
It was a battle of attrition, and attrition nearly won.
But in slowly pulling away from the upstart Huskies throughout the second half, largely on the strength of 27 points and 10 rebounds from senior Kristen Kovesdy, the Sun Devils demonstrated the experience, depth and adaptability of a team that deserves to be No. 10 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, while the Huskies demonstrated the inexperience of a promising upstart.
That experience is key, marking the Sun Devils -- who have now won nine straight games, their longest winning streak in 10 years under Thorne -- as more than a flash in the pan, even as they remain largely hidden from the view of fans in the Midwest and East. Turner Thorne has steadily built her program into a contender and took the team to a new high with last season's run to the Sweet 16, where the fifth-seeded Sun Devils gave top-seeded North Carolina fits before losing 79-72. And although the Sun Devils were unable to avenge that defeat in November, losing by the exact same score against the Tar Heels, much of this season's first two months have been spent proving that postseason success was only one more step toward a greater goal.
Turner Thorne's style is somewhat unique, often using her bench like Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky uses his up the road in Phoenix. Ideally, players roll off the Arizona State bench in waves, with nine players currently averaging double-digit minutes. It's a relentless attack that is ideal for March and April, when opponents have little advance time to prepare. But as Thursday's win over Washington proved, Turner Thorne is willing to adapt on the fly, sticking mostly with a core group of seven players to secure the win.
Not that adapting is an unfamiliar theme this season, with star point guard Kylan Loney and dependable reserve Carrie Buckner having graduated from last year's team, taking 32 percent of the team's assists and 43 percent of the team's 3-pointers with them. In their place, the Sun Devils are counting more on the inside duo of Kovesdy and Emily Westerberg to lead the way, and with good reason. Kovesdy was brilliant against the Huskies, scoring both with bruising post moves and on transition conversions. Westerberg had a tough night but remains the team's second-leading scorer, shooting 52 percent from the floor this season. Neither might have the offensive brilliance (or at least the mentality) to carry a team over an entire season, but both have the skills to carry the team on any given night.
Not that they're alone. In the quartet of Jill Noe, Amy Denson, Aubree Johnson and Danielle Orsillo, the Sun Devils might actually have a deeper well of offensive options than they did last season. Though it's easy to forget after she missed the last two seasons with knee injuries, Noe made the Pac-10 All-Freshman First Team in 2002-03 and led the Sun Devils in scoring that season. And in hitting all three of her shots in limited but meaningful minutes against Washington, Orsillo flashed the talent that made her such a decorated player coming out of the California high school ranks last spring.
Effort and defensive intensity will never be issues for a Turner Thorne team, but the biggest challenge for the Sun Devils will be keeping all that offensive potential producing points on a consistent basis. Kovesdy bailed them out against the Huskies, although the coaching staff and players deserve credit for recognizing she was on a roll and successfully running the offense through her in the second half. But this remains a team adapting to life without Loney, whose on-court leadership made her one of the stars of last season's NCAA Tournament.
The Sun Devils can live without a true point guard because their offense is built that way. There is no Ann Strother, a player forced to do too much to create shots for her teammates, or Jessica Davenport, a player struggling to get looks without someone to get her the ball. But they can't survive in March and April with as many turnovers as they committed against Washington. Sophomore Reagan Pariseau and freshman Briann January (who to be fair, were responsible for just four of Thursday's turnovers) might hold the key to getting over Loney, needing simply to be steady in handling the ball and starting the flow of the offense. In the team's lone loss against Carolina, the young point platoon combined for seven turnovers and just five assists.
And if Pariseau and January are even average, this Arizona State team is better than last year's team.
With their nonconference schedule behind them and Stanford struggling to find its identity behind Candice Wiggins, the Sun Devils have a golden opportunity to win the Pac-10 and seize a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That kind of success would finally place them in the national spotlight and in the unfamiliar role of favorites, but that's the logical progression for Turner Thorne's team after six consecutive postseason appearances.
Hidden away in the deserts of Arizona, a treacherous wagon ride away from the nearest outcropping of civilization, there is some basketball being played on the American frontier. And if the rest of us pause from debating the Teapot Dome scandal and turn our ear to the telegraph office, we just might find that Stanford's "demise" does not mean the far reaches of the United States are devoid of championship contenders. After all, Turner Thorne is a Stanford grad.
Arizona State is out there. And the Sun Devils are ready.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage.
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