Pac-10 title no longer a pipe dream as Sendek rises to the challenge at ASU

TEMPE, Ariz. -- That unmistakable North Carolina lilt wafts down the passageway inside the bowels of the basketball arena. It laps its honey sweetness around Herb Sendek's name, and if you close your eyes, it's not hard to imagine that voice will shortly stop talking about basketball and start talking about the evils of tomato-based barbecue sauce.

But that transport back to Tobacco Road snaps back quickly. The visitor from North Carolina is singing Sendek's praises, but she is wearing a yellow-gold shirt that's nothing like the red of NC State. A look outside reveals desert landscape -- cactuses, for gosh sakes.

This isn't ACC country.

Sendek self-imposed his desert exile, bolting Raleigh after a decade -- the Wolfpack growling at his heels following a 22-10 finish in 2005-06 -- for a program that could be described as second-rate if anyone had mustered an inclination to stop and describe it.

Oh, there's still red in Sendek's life, though. For one, there's that blood-red coloring that suffuses his follicle-challenged head when he's mad or euphoric. It's a transformation for the restrained, philosophical coach that is notorious amongst his players, one that forward Jeff Pendergraph said prevented them for singing "Happy Birthday" after Sendek turned 46 on Sunday.

"It's not even just his face," Pendergraph further explained. "It's his entire head, because he ain't got no hair."

Then, of course, there are those red-shirted Arizona fans trudging out of Wells Fargo Arena on Sendek's birthday after watching their beloved, once-mighty Wildcats lose a fourth straight game to the Sun Devils.

That hasn't happened since Arizona State won nine straight in the bitter rivalry from 1979-83.

The Wildcats still have won 24-of-29 in the lopsided series and own a 138-77 mark overall. But the onetime Grand Canyon-like gap between the programs is closing.

"We are a basketball school now," high-scoring guard James Harden said.

The 11th-ranked Sun Devils, 21-5 overall, trail Washington by a half-game in the Pac-10 standings. They head to Seattle for a critical showdown Thursday.

The last time Arizona State won a Pac-10 title? That would be -- never.

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Heck, this program has appeared in one NCAA tournament -- 2003 -- over the previous 13 seasons.

So Sendek left the heart of the frenzied ACC for a hoops wasteland, despite many folks telling him not to do it.

"There was a lot of that," Sendek said. "I just felt in my gut, instinctively, that this was the right time and right place."

Of course, back in Raleigh, folks know there's more to the story. Despite leading the Wolfpack to five consecutive NCAA tournament berths, Sendek was mostly unloved. There was his grind-it-out style of play. There was his refusal to foam at the mouth over rivalry games. And there was only one berth in the Sweet 16.

Sendek doesn't like to talk about what happened at NC State. And he's certainly not going to point out that the Pack is headed for its third consecutive season without an invitation to the Big Dance.

But despite his tendency to speak in koans and philosophical aphorisms -- a reporter might often feel he's about to be called "Grasshopper" during an interview -- there's just a little bit of a backward glance inside Sendek.

What about that grind-it-out style that supposedly bored fans back East?

"It's amazing about reputations: My last year at NC State [2005-06], I think we finished in the top three in the conference in scoring, behind North Carolina and Duke," he said. "So it's easy, if you allow your ego to get in the way, to kind of point to whatever stats support your claim. And then someone else can point to stats that refute it. You go back and forth. It's best to let that go. Sometimes we play faster than others."

The Wolfpack were fifth in ACC scoring that season, actually, but why fret that detail when today's Sun Devils are second in the Pac-10 in scoring defense and third in field-goal percentage defense?

As for rivalry games, he seems to be doing fairly well with those now, even if he leaves it to the fans to go all Spinal Tap about turning up the intensity to 11.

"You want a basketball team that gives all of itself for every game, right," he said. "So how do you give more than all? Theoretically, we should be a program that always gives our best. That always is chasing perfection, hoping to catch excellence, as Lombardi said."

That's why Sendek, the second-youngest active coach with 300 Division I wins, preaches passion and focus over emotion, a lesson that has helped Pendergraph -- who needs all of his 6-foot-9, 240-pound frame to contain his personality -- learn to stay under control on the court.

Sendek told Pendergraph during their first season together (an 8-22 slog) that things would get better and that the post needed to start channeling Tim Duncan.

"My first impression? He seemed like a brainiac guy and I'd never really played with a coach like that," Pendergraph said. "That first year was tough. We lost so many games. But he was like, 'Don't worry, Jeff. We're going to get good players here and we're going to start winning games. Just keep working hard and be the leader we need you to be.'"

That player was Harden, who leads the conference with 21.2 points per game.

Now, with a $20 million practice facility projected to open on May 1, the future looks bright, and Sendek, a native of Pittsburgh, appears to have found a home in the desert.

Not that he's looking ahead. Or behind.

"As much as you can," he said, "you try to have the discipline to stay in the moment."

Ted Miller covers college football and college basketball for ESPN.com.