TEMPE, Ariz. — Following a 72-51 win over Colorado Saturday night at Wells Fargo Arena, Arizona State head coach Herb Sendek was in a very apologetic mood — albeit tongue-in-cheek.
“If we would have lost [both games this weekend], we would have had to wash our face, get up and get ready for our next game and keep battling,” Sendek said. “It would have given some of you a chance to write what a lousy coach I am. I’m sorry to dispel that drama temporarily.”
After a pair of double-digit losses to UCLA and Arizona, the Sun Devils certainly dispelled any sense of drama or uneasiness surrounding the program, as they swept their first Pac-12 series since Jan. 24-26, 2013.
It was a weekend full of high moments — one that might never have occurred if not for a bold move by Sendek.
In an effort to shake things up after a less-than-stellar 2-3 start to conference play, Sendek called on sophomore forward Eric Jacobsen to replace junior Jonathan Gilling in the starting lineup.
Before the swap, Jacobsen had made one career start in a Sun Devil uniform, while Gilling had started 71 straight games dating back to his freshman season of 2011-12.
“There’s a lot of thought that goes into it,” said Sendek of the decision to change his lineup mid-season. “We all know at the end of the day who all starts isn’t that important. You can sub immediately in basketball. But as a coach, though, you’re always charged to do what’s best for the team. And in our case, we have really good people and high-character people. And Jon is one of those people. He’s responded to the shift like a champion. And by the way, so has Eric Jacobsen.”
That they have.
In ASU’s two wins by a combined 25 points over Utah and Colorado since the lineup shift, Gilling (55 minutes) has actually seen more playing time than Jacobsen (36 minutes), but both have found their calling.
Saturday night in what turned out to be the Sun Devils’ largest conference win since Jan. 2010, Jacobsen set the tone, scoring six points, grabbing six boards, taking a charge and recording his first collegiate dunk all within the first 10:27 of the first half.
When his one-man onslaught concluded, ASU found itself up 17-13 — a lead it would never lose.
“Eric’s improvement, his progress and his play are really helping our basketball team right now,” said Sendek. “He’s such a smart player, a tough player and you can just see his confidence growing.”
While Jacobsen was not ready to concede that he lacked any sense of confidence before being inserted into the starting lineup, the 6-foot-10 sophomore admitted the game has slowed down for him since joining the program.
“Last year, it was just so fast,” Jacobsen said. “It was a big jump from high school. But this year, it is starting to slow down. I’m starting to feel more comfortable.”
Speaking of comfortable, Gilling has looked just that from three-point range since coming off the pine.
After starting conference play just 6-of-20 from downtown, the 6-foot-7 Dane connected on all seven of his three-point attempts against the Utes and Buffaloes, while also combining for nine rebounds and seven assists.
“Nothing has really changed in my mindset other than having to come off the bench,” Gilling said. “I’m happy to do it. Whatever it takes, right?”
In his head coach’s mind, absolutely.
Although a mixing of the formula seemed a bit unorthodox given its timing, early returns have shown it was exactly the right move for a junior whose up-and-down psyche needed a jump start in the worst way.
“In Jon’s case, I don’t want him relaxed,” said Sendek. “He’s better on edge and that’s one of my great challenges, to keep him on edge. Among the many mistakes I’ve made, one of them would be that I didn’t have him come off the bench earlier in his career. I screwed up by having him start all of those games, because he hasn’t missed yet since he’s come off the bench.”
Hindsight might be 20-20, but Sendek’s mid-season makeover might have ultimately served dual purposes: muting the clamoring over his future in Tempe, while also preserving any chance ASU still has to make the NCAA tournament.