'Patience Is A Virtue'
Jan. 29, 2001
TEMPE, Ariz. - Some random thoughts, after first apologizing to you for not visiting this site more frequently in the past month or so...
In sizing up the disappointing 0-7 Pac-10 record of the Sun Devil men's basketball team, I keep thinking of a couple of lines from songs that were popular back in the pre-Neanderthal era - namely, the '60s and '70s, when I was in high school and college! One was from a Lynn Anderson country tune, in which she exclaimed, 'I never promised you a Rose Garden!' The other lyric, title and artist unknown to me, simply stated that 'Mama said there'd be days like this...there'd be days like this, my Mama said.' In ASU's case, Mama probably figured there'd be years like this, as well.
When Rob Evans came to Tempe in 1998 to re-build the Arizona State basketball program, he knew the task at hand would not be easy. No one ever promised him it would be a rose garden. Evans had previous experience in the basketball program reconstruction business, having resurrected men's hoops at the University of Mississippi from 1992-98. Yet, it wasn't until the fifth season of Rob's six-year tenure at Ole' Miss that the victories starting coming in bunches. After posting records of 10-18, 14-13, 8-19 and 12-15, Evans' last two Mississippi teams went 20-9 and 22-7, winning Southeastern Conference West Division titles and gaining NCAA Tournament berths both seasons. It was the first time since 1937-38 that Ole' Miss posted back-to-back 20-win seasons, and the first time in school history that the Rebels made it to the NCAA Tournament in two consecutive years. The point I'm making is that, as ESPN/ABC college basketball analyst (and former Duke star) Jay Bilas told me last week, 'anything good, takes time to build.'
Interesting, isn't it, that if you look closely at Rob Evans' record at Mississippi, his worst season (in terms of wins and losses) came in year three. Better times were just around the corner. This happens to be year three of his tenure at ASU, and his Sun Devils have endured the worst Pac-10 start in school history. I feel quite certain better times lay ahead for the Devils.
You had to figure that this year's ASU team would face a formidable challenge in compensating for the absence of 2000 Pac-10 Player of the Year Eddie House, now with the NBA's Miami Heat. But at least Evans knew he wouldn't have House to lean on this season. What Rob didn't expect were the season-ending injuries/illness that have cost the Sun Devils the services of valuable sophomores Tanner Shell and Justin Allen. Nor could he have anticipated that junior center Chad Prewitt would be rendered useless for four key conference games in January due to a severe ankle sprain suffered in practice on January 9.
Minus Shell and Allen, the Sun Devils have been stripped of perhaps their two best perimeter shooters. Shell also adds an element of toughness and defensive intensity that any basketball team would welcome, while Allen proved last year he can contribute spot minutes inside. As for Prewitt, he is easily ASU's most reliable scoring threat down low, and has shown a capacity to hit the three-pointer as well.
Once you remove House, Shell, Allen and Prewitt from the equation, the Sun Devils are left, in essence, with a group of role-players who are trying to figure out exactly what their roles are, while also trying to find leaders among their ranks. Playing a conference schedule that has so far included matchups with three of the nation's top 25 teams (Stanford, Arizona and USC) as well as perennial power UCLA, has also been a factor in the 0-7 start.
This team is not without its bright spots. Though prone to bouts of wildly inconsistent play, forward Awvee Storey has been a true warrior on the glass over the past month, emerging as the top rebounder in the Pac-10 at over nine boards per game. In league play, Storey has averaged a double double per contest (12 ppg and 11 rebounds). Senior Alton Mason has demonstrated a capacity to score, leading the Sun Devils with 16 ppg in Pac-10 games. Prewitt appears to be over his ankle injury, and returned with a flourish at Arizona, dropping in a team-best 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting, including a pair of threes. Perhaps the most exciting development of the past month has been the on-going emergence of Tommy Smith, the Sun Devils' potential-laden 6'10' forward who has averaged 11 points and four rebounds over the last six games. All Tommy needs to do now is figure out a way to play the entire game, having fouled out of each of the last three contests. It has also been encouraging to see Donnell Knight demonstrate some much-needed aggressiveness offensively in the last two games (17 points against USC, 12 points/5 assists/4 rebounds at Arizona January 24). Knight and Smith have so much talent and potential, it's scary. Sooner or later you get the feeling that the light switch will be permanently situated in the 'on' position, and that the kids' talent will manifest itself on a game-in, game-out basis.
In my mind, the best thing the Devils have going for them is the coaching of Rob Evans and his staff. Even as the losses have mounted during the past month, the coaches have never stopped teaching, never stopped demanding the most from their players, all the while doing so within the context of massaging the kids' bruised egos. Evans is supremely confident of his abilities and those of his aides, and he refuses to go for the so-called 'quick fix' (i.e., a massive influx of junior college transfers), preferring instead to build his program on a foundation of high school recruits who are not only skilled players, but also solid citizens and good students. When kids like that are taught by quality individuals such as Evans and assistants Russ Pennell, Tony Benford, Dan O'Dowd and Ron DuBois, they can't help but someday succeed.
I know how frustrating it must be for Sun Devil fans who are being asked yet again to 'be patient.' However, they say that patience is a virtue, and mark my words, Devil devotees: any patience you demonstrate toward the ASU men's hoop team this season will be rewarded in due time. And I don't think that time is far off. In fact, don't be surprised if the Sun Devils make some noise over the second half of this year's Pac-10 schedule.
On another subject: our heartfelt sympathies go out to Oklahoma State University's men's basketball program, after the plane crash in Colorado this past weekend that killed 10 members of the Cowboys' travelling party, including two players and OSU's radio play-by-play broadcaster. Rob Evans and Russ Pennell both spent two years as an assistant to Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State from 1990-92, and no doubt share in the grief their ex-mentor is experiencing. My engineer Tim Evans and I travel with the ASU men's basketball team throughout our season, so I think both of us have a special sadness as well, knowing that OSU's broadcaster Bill Teegins and his engineer were among the victims of this tragedy. Though I never met Bill, he was about my age, and like me was a television sportscaster who developed a passion for play-by-play work. It certainly isn't hard for me to identify with him, to mourn for Bill and with his family, and to think to myself, 'there but for the grace of God could have been me.'
Unlike many college basketball programs (like Oklahoma State's) which charter planes during the season, the Sun Devils use commercial flights to and from their varied destinations. In weather such as the Cowboys experienced up in Colorado last weekend (or like we experienced on our logistically-challenged trip to snowy Pullman earlier in January), I know my preference would be to fly in a large commercial airliner as opposed to the smaller aircraft chartered by OSU. It's ironic that we'll be hitting the road later this week, heading up to Oregon for basketball games at Oregon State Thursday night and Oregon on Sunday afternoon. I think it's safe to assume all of us in the Sun Devil party will be travelling with heavy hearts and pre-occupied minds this weekend.
For more from Tim Healey, please visit 'Healey's Highlights'.