Herb Sendek Loses Two Top Assistants: Symptomatic of His Hot Seat at Arizona State?

Posted by Chris Johnson on August 24th, 2012

Christopher Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.

As Arizona State muddled down the stretch to its second straight NCAA Tournament-free season, there were small signs that maybe (just maybe) the Sun Devils, in a reversal of the program’s stark two-year downward spiral, were trending upward. Sophomore center Jordan Bachynski saw his scoring and rebounding totals jump over the latter portion of conference play and the Sun Devils notched consecutive wins for the first time all season, including at home over in-state rival Arizona to knock the Wildcats off the at-large bubble cutline . The positive momentum dissipated quickly when three key contributors – sophomore guard Chanse Creekmur, power forward Kyle Cain, and leading scorer Trent Lockett – left the program for various reasons. Despite the personnel departures, there was reason to believe ASU could build upon Bachynski’s semi-improvement, work in six incoming players, unleash highly-touted prospect Jahii Carson at the point, and make some noise in an arguably top-heavy Pac-12. For coach Herb Sendek, who over the past two seasons has posted a lowly 22-40 record, anything less than an NIT appearance in 2012-13 is probably a firable outcome. Turning the Sun Devils around and saving his job after a quasi-exodus of scoring output and rotation minutes is an onerous proposition in and of itself. Sendek learned Thursday afternoon he will undergo his saving grace season without two familiar faces. Just a day after losing assistant Scott Pera to a similar position at Penn, Lamont Smith packed his bags and left to join Lorenzo Romar’s staff at Washington.

After losing two top assistants, the pressure has ratcheted up on Sendek’s hold on the head coaching job (Photo credit: Gus Ruelas/AP Photo).

Doug Haller of The Arizona Republic spoke with Sendek after Smith made his announcement.

Honestly, the timing isn’t ideal, but I think it creates a great opportunity for us. […] It provides us with an opportunity to bring in two very talented members for our staff, so at the end of the day, I suspect it will be a win-win for everybody involved.

Putting a positive spin on these departures is a completely understandable approach: Sendek needs to show newly-promoted athletic director Steve Patterson he’s not going to simply buckle under the pressure of two poor seasons and a depleted coaching staff. The defections are tough to swallow, but Sendek clearly isn’t giving off any hints of displeasure or other negative reactions. Optimism aside, Sendek now finds himself in an extremely unfavorable position. On the eve of what is arguably a tenure-defining season, Sendek must produce respectable results out of a new-look roster with little in the way of sideline help to congeal the disparate parts. With two transfers, a pair of freshman and a now-eligible Carson expected to play significant minutes, Sendek has to find ways to work in the influx of new players and create a functional system around veteran mainstays like Bachynski and seniors Carrick Felix and Chris Colvin, all while providing signs of appreciable progression in an improved league.

It’s not an impossible task by any stretch; if Carson plays to his considerable hype and the new pieces operate effectively around him, the Sun Devils could end up with a top-half Pac-12 finish. The late (or, depending on your viewpoint, really early) departures simply mean Sendek’s job-saving season won’t include the typical comfort of having trusted, familiar basketball minds who know his system, philosophy and teaching methods easing the pressure of an increasingly sizzling coaching hot seat. From a stability standpoint, the fact that Sendek lost two of his closest assistants to a sudden and ill-timed exit scheme doesn’t reflect positively on his support group heading into a make-or-break season. After all, when a coach gets canned, his staff normally gets swept away as collateral damage. That Pera bolted for a lesser job and Smith made a lateral move to a rival program gives the appearance that the two assistants aren’t all too confident Sendek will make it through the coming season with his position intact.

The next step for Sendek – besides the considerable preparatory work he must do to groom his team into a competitive Pac-12 outfit – is finding replacements for the two runaways. At this late juncture, promoting in-house members to fill the vacancies is probably the most logical course of action. Bringing in outsiders on such short notice could disrupt his plans for the upcoming season. New assistants need time to learn the ways of the man in charge, to embrace his style and extend his agenda unto an entirely foreign group of players. Besides, the chances Sendek could find suitable replacements from outside the program this late into the offseason are undoubtedly slim. Two high-level assistants jumping ship with just two months until opening practice is far from a ringing endorsement of the direction and overall momentum the Arizona State basketball program is trying to build. It’s no secret that Sendek may be coaching for his job this season. And given the likelihood that Patterson would send Sendek’s staff packing along with the coach himself, the impetus to join the Sun Devils’ sideline for a possible one-year stint is awfully meager. It’s a tenuous state of affairs in Tempe, and now Sendek has another challenge to overcome on top of the existing pressures of molding a revamped roster to perform under the analytical eyes of a new athletic director. Sendek will walk into a daunting set of circumstances in a largely isolated state, forced to navigate a crucial season without two men that helped him reach high levels of achievement earlier in his tenure.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.

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