Cal, ASU ready to duel for first place |

Cal, ASU ready to duel for first place

Andrew Bagnato, The Associated Press

The only Pac-10 school without a men’s basketball title, Arizona State has been climbing the ladder since Herb Sendek arrived in 2006.

The Sun Devils went from last in the Pac-10 in Sendek’s first season to fifth place to third last season.

Can ASU end its 31-year title drought this year? The Sun Devils will have a better idea on Thursday night, when they play host to league-leading California.

After briefly leading the topsy-turvy league, the Sun Devils (14-6, 4-3 Pac-10) tumbled into a five-way tie for second place in a 77-58 loss to archrival Arizona on Saturday night in Tempe, Ariz. The Golden Bears (13-6, 5-2) lead the pack by a game.

Sendek said this week he doesn’t expect any carry-over from the disheartening loss to Arizona, which snapped a four-game win streak and five in a row over the Wildcats.

“We have guys who are resilient,” Sendek said. “They look at it, they learn from it, and they move on, and they do that win or lose.”

The Sun Devils will try to avoid dropping back-to-back games for the third time this season – and they’ll look to shore up their zone defense.

Arizona State had been allowing only 54.68 points per game, fewest in the nation, but seemed powerless as Arizona put up 52 in the second half.

Sendek seemed more concerned about his team’s offense, which stalled for long stretches. He vowed to keep trying to pound the ball inside to 6-foot-10 center Eric Boateng, who is averaging 5.6 points per game in conference play.

Boateng took only four shots from the floor – and made one – in 20 minutes against Arizona. He struggled against more athletic Wildcats in the paint.

“I have confidence that Eric is capable of making plays and has done it in the past, and he’s our guy and it’s important that we believe in him,” Sendek said. “The ability to score inside is important in basketball and when we’ve been able to do that, we’re a much more difficult team to defend, just like anybody else.”

This much seems clear: ASU will have to play better against the Golden Bears, who average a league-high 79.1 points per game.

In a youthful conference, the Golden Bears rely heavily on a pair of seniors – point guard Jerome Randle, who averages 18.7 points per game, and guard Patrick Christopher, who averages 16.3.

“Jerome Randle is crazy good,” Sendek said. “I don’t know how many guys in the country are better than him, and you surround him on either wing with two other seniors, Christopher and (forward Theo) Robertson, that’s a lethal perimeter, not to mention all the other guys they have going down their roster. They are a veteran team, outstanding personnel, well deployed and very difficult to defend.”

The Golden Bears had mixed success against ASU’s zone defense last year, winning 81-71 in Berkeley early in the season and losing 83-66 in Tempe in the regular season finale.

“The matchup causes everybody problems,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said on the Pac-10 coaches teleconference. “It’s unorthodox. It’s different. It’s not something you see very often.

“It forces you out of context offensively, I think, a little bit,” he said.

California was picked to win the conference in a preseason media poll, and many coaches believe it will emerge as the season wears on.

But the injury-plagued Golden Bears have been struggling to find rhythm all season. In their last game, they looked sluggish in a 65-61 home victory over Oregon State on Saturday.

Afterward, Montgomery made it clear he expects more from his team.

“If we’re going to make a run at it, we’re going to have to get better, get stronger, get tougher,” Montgomery said.

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