Harden had 24 points and a career-high 10 assists, and No. 15 Arizona State defeated Mississippi Valley State 80-64 on Friday night to win its opener for the first time in Herb Sendek's three seasons.
"There is a sense of excitement around the program right now, and obviously James has a lot to do with that," Sendek said.
Harden is ASU's top scoring threat. But he flashed playmaking skills that will make it tough for defenses to double-team him.
Time after time, Harden found multiple defenders in his way. So he fired passes to wide-open teammates.
"I guess that's how I always am," Harden said. "I'm a playmaker. I get my teammates shots. I try to create for them as much as possible. That's pretty much my game. Today, I think I did an OK job of doing that."
After ASU won the opening tip, Harden dunked off a dish from Ty Abbott and the Sun Devils, who hit seven of their first nine shots from the floor, were off and running to a 39-23 halftime lead.
The Sun Devils entered the season ranked for the first time since 1991-92, when they lost two of their first three in Maui and dropped out of the rankings.
Arizona State is unaccustomed to being in the national spotlight, but the Sun Devils had few opening-night jitters. The Sun Devils shot 57.8 percent from the floor, scoring 26 baskets on 24 assists, but Sendek thought his players were too deliberate.
"We really held the ball too much," Sendek said. "The ball didn't move freely. Everybody who caught it just kind of made sure it was orange, made sure it was a sphere, and then we passed it. Our offense is going to work better when we move the ball more freely and more sharply."
The Sun Devils played much of the first half without starting forward Jeff Pendergraph, who went to the sideline with two fouls after 9 minutes. Pendergraph had only two points at halftime and finished with 10.
The Delta Devils lost their last game 70-29 to top-seeded UCLA in the opening round of the NCAA tourney last spring. This one was much closer.
"I thought we fought hard," Mississippi Valley State coach Sean Woods said. "We didn't give up. We kept fighting. We've got a ways to go in terms of making the right plays."
Trailing 39-23 at halftime, the Delta Devils opened the second half by hitting three straight 3-pointers to pull within seven.
"They hit us between the eyes to start the second half," Sendek said. "Suffice it to say we have a great deal of work to do."
But that's when Harden, who had been dominating on offense, asserted himself at the other end of the floor. Arizona State led 50-41 when Harden stole the ball on consecutive possessions, feeding Derek Glasser for a layup and then Abbott for a dunk to push the lead to 54-41 with 12:19 to play.
The Sun Devils led by double digits the rest of the way.
Shannon Behling scored 18 points for the Delta Devils, who won the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament last year.
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