March 19, 2009


MIAMI (AP) - Even the Pac-10 player of the year can have a lousy 60 seconds. Or a subpar 40 minutes.

Arizona State's James Harden missed a free throw, layup and 3-pointer in the final minute of last week's league tournament championship game, which the Sun Devils lost by three points to Southern California.

Harden was held to 10 points, half his average of 20.8. He'll try to bounce back Friday when the No. 6-seeded Sun Devils face No. 11 seed Temple in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

"Him being an all-star player, it's always important for him to have a big game," teammate Jeff Pendergraph said Thursday. "But I'm not too worried about James. He's a big-time player when the lights are on."

In his two years with the Sun Devils, Harden has helped them post back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time in 28 years. This season they're 24-9 and in the NCAA field for the first time since 2003.

The chance for a tournament berth is one reason the 6-foot-5 Harden decided not to turn pro a year ago after his freshman season.

"This is a great experience, to be a part of this tournament and be able to compete against these great players," Harden said. "When I thought to return, this is what I expected."

Temple has a high-scoring 6-5 guard of its own in Dionte Christmas, and unlike Harden, he's coming off one of his best performances. Christmas scored 29 points in the Atlanta 10 title game against Duquesne, which the Owls (22-11) needed to win to make the NCAA tournament field.

Christmas was chosen the league tournament's outstanding player for the second straight year.

"I don't think we're going to win a lot of big games if Dionte doesn't have a great game," teammate Semaj Inge said.

Arizona State couldn't win last week with Harden struggling, and the toll of a long season may have contributed to his difficulties against Southern Cal. He has played 461 of a possible 490 minutes in the past 12 games and had trouble coping with the Trojans' full-court press.

It was his third game in as many days, and Harden was slowed by a bruised Achilles' tendon.

"We had to take him out a couple times in that game just to see if we could rejuvenate him a little bit," coach Herb Sendek said. "Hopefully that has calmed down and he's feeling a little bit better."

Harden shrugged off his showing against Southern Cal and said he expects no carryover.

"We just didn't make enough shots to put out the game," he said. "This is NCAA tournament time, so everyone steps up their game, and I have to do the same thing."

Touted as the best left-hander at Arizona State since Phil Mickelson, Harden is the third sophomore to be chosen Pac-10 player of the year, joining Jason Kidd and Mike Bibby. Besides being a prolific scorer, he has led the Sun Devils in assists 28 times and rebounding 19 times over the past two years.

Harden has made almost half of the Sun Devils' free throws this season, and from the field he's shooting 50 percent. But not all of his contributions can be quantified, Sendek said.

"If you only evaluate somebody's impact on their numbers, you can really miss the totality of what they're influencing," Sendek said. "James allowed us to score many baskets throughout the season when in some instances he didn't touch the ball. His presence adds value to our offense."

Still only 19 years old, Harden is projected as a possible lottery pick if he makes the jump to the NBA this year.

"The pro guys who talk about him liken his game to a Paul Pierce," Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. "That's pretty lofty company. He's got the great knack of scoring and getting to the foul line."

While Harden is a penetrator, Christmas does his best work on the perimeter. More than half of the senior's shots are 3-point tries, and he's hitting 35 percent while averaging 19.2 points.

In short, he's a shooter - and a big reason Temple has made the tournament the past two years.

"He's amazing to watch on tape," Sendek said. "He makes shots that quite frankly seem indefensible. Defenders are draped on him, hand up, nose to nose, and somehow he creates a little bit of space and the ball is up and in."

Christmas is also streaky, and before sinking seven 3-pointers in the Atlantic 10 title game, he had been in a slump. This month he's shooting 34 percent from the field, including a 1-for-10 game last week against St. Joseph's.

"He has had an interesting year," Dunphy said. "He has made more big shots this year for us, but he hasn't shot the best percentage this year. We've become so spoiled watching him play that we think that every time he shoots it, it's going to go in the basket."