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Confessions of a Herb Sendek defender

Another year, another frustrating, head-scratching loss in the Pac-12 Tournament for the Arizona State Sun Devils.

This time, the fifth-seeded Devils coughed up a 15-point lead with nine minutes remaining and lost to the 12th-seeded USC Trojans 67-64.

USC! A team that went 3-15 in Pac-12 play. USC! A team with an RPI rating of 211 — out of 351 Division I teams.

With the loss, ASU is now 6-17 all-time in the season-ending conference tournament. Current head coach Herb Sendek is 3-9, with two of those wins coming during the Devils’ march to the championship game in 2009, where incidentally, they blew a 15-point lead in the second half and lost by three to USC.

The Sun Devils needed to win the Pac-12 Tournament to get a bid to the big dance — a result unlikely to happen even if they had held off USC Wednesday in Las Vegas. In fact, the loss may have even prevented them from getting an invitation to college hoops’ consolation tournament, the NIT.

I’ve long defended Sendek. No, he’s not flashy. For the most part, he’s not attracting blue chip recruits to Tempe. But the man runs a clean program featuring players who are easy to root for and who show vast improvement during their respective careers in Tempe.

The Sun Devils have averaged 17.5 wins per season under Sendek, and made two NCAA appearances. They’ve won a grand total of one game.

When you take into consideration Arizona State’s basketball history since it entered the Pac-10 back in 1978, that’s pretty much been the story. The coaches from the legendary Ned Wulk to Sendek’s predecessor, Rob Evans, won a total of five NCAA Tournament games from 1978 to 2006.

If they couldn’t build a consistent winning program in Tempe, why could Sendek? Thirty-seven years of history is a pretty good historical gauge. This is the way things are, right?

“Who are you going to get to coach in Tempe who’s any better than Herb,” Sendek defenders (myself included) would ask. Sure, ASU could go after an up-and-coming coach who would probably use the job as a stepping stone to a bigger and better position with a traditional powerhouse. What good does that do you? On the flip side, they don’t have the prestige or funds to lure a big name like Pitino, Izzo or Calipari.

That led to the Sendek defense. “He’s the best we can do,” many ASU fans would say.

But the basketball coach’s football counterpart has changed my thinking a little bit.

Todd Graham was not a splashy hire for ASU. After a very messy coaching search, Graham left Pittsburgh after one ho-hum .500 season to come to Tempe. Many in the Valley knew nothing of the head coach outside of his propensity to chase the bigger and better job.

But Graham came in determined to pull the Sun Devil program out of the doldrums of mediocrity. He immediately started talking about championships — Pac-12, Rose Bowl and national. After three seasons, he has remained relentless in that pursuit. The football team is not there yet, but Graham has back-to-back 10-win seasons in his back pocket, a claim that no ASU coach since Frank Kush can make. The future is very bright for Sun Devil football.

With his constant optimism and voracious drive to win, Graham has raised the bar in terms of expectations for all the athletic programs on ASU’s campus. It makes you look really hard at the team that resides in the Weatherup Center.

I’m not attempting to impugn Sendek’s drive or passion. He’s a good coach — his 412 wins over a 22-year career prove he is.

All I’m saying is nine years is an adequate sample size. Using Graham as an example, mediocrity shouldn’t be enough for a university that strives to be the biggest and best in the country.

The men’s basketball team remains mediocre.

You do the math.