Better Days Are Ahead

March 14, 2001

First off, my apologies for not visiting this site more frequently in recent weeks. In all honesty, it's been a hectic period of time for us at the Sun Devil Sports Network. Before you ask if I want some cheese to go with my 'whine,' let me elaborate.

In early February, we were displaced from our basement offices in Arizona State's athletic department headquarters (the ICA Building, to you and me!), due to the on-going renovation and expansion of that building. The move also forced us to temporarily dis-assemble the small, yet highly effective radio/recording studio we constructed in the ICA Building two summers ago. My co-workers at the SDSN were relocated to another office building on campus, while yours truly has been working out of his home for the past few weeks. As a result of all this upheaval, our close-knit group (which includes myself, general manager Norwood Teague, director of operations and corporate relations Lindsay Campbell, business manager Brett Wallerstedt, sales manager Lee Rosenthal and engineer Tim Evans, as well as a bevy of fine interns) is somewhat fragmented physically, though certainly not in spirit!

In addition, our network is about to lose its leader. Norwood Teague, general manager of the Sun Devil Sports Network since its inception in the spring of 1999, is leaving us to return home to his alma mater as an assistant athletic director at the University of North Carolina. Norwood's been a good friend, a great colleague, and a guy we'll miss dearly, but the UNC job is absolutely made to order for this native Tar Heel who bleeds Carolina Blue.

As all this change has been swirling around me, I've been keeping quite busy broadcasting the exploits of ASU's men's basketball and baseball teams. I wanted to share with you some post-mortem thoughts on the hoopsters, if I may.

To say the very least, it was a disappointing and frustrating 2000-2001 season for coach Rob Evans' Sun Devil men's basketball squad. I'm not sure exactly what I expected out of this year's Devils, but I know I did not expect a 13--16 final record from a team that ended up losing 13 of its 18 conference games, with nine of those defeats coming by double-digit margins. I guess I envisioned (through rose-colored spectacles, perhaps) a team similar to the one Cal had this season: namely, a young group that would benefit from the experience gained last year, mature as the weeks went by, and evolve into an exciting, cohesive team that would challenge for an NCAA or NIT berth.

It never came close to happening. There are several good reasons why.

For openers, there was one big difference between the Cal and Arizona State squads of 2000-2001. The Golden Bears' young players had a talented senior they leaned on throughout the season, forward Sean Lampley (who was just named the Pac-10 Player of the Year, and deservedly so), while ASU's kids spent most of the fall and winter figuring out how to fill the void left by their star senior from a year ago, Eddie House, the 2000 Pac-10 Player of the Year now with the NBA's Miami Heat. House's departure figured to cause problems for the Sun Devils. It did, as was painfully obvious in the waning minutes of close games, in which no Devil seemed to want the ball to take the potential game-winning shot, whereas Eddie demanded the rock with the game on the line. It wasn't just in point production, either, that Eddie's absence was felt: House was a defender, rebounder and play-maker for last year's Sun Devils, a rare talent who made all those around him better.

At least you knew at season's start that Eddie wasn't going to be around anymore. What you could not have envisioned several months ago, was the detrimental effect injuries and illness would ultimately have on this year's Sun Devil team. Tanner Shell and Justin Allen, sophomores who arguably were the two best perimeter shooters on the squad, both sat out the entire season due to physical problems. Shell's chronically sore back and broken hand sidelined him for all but the opening game of the season, while Allen redshirted to wage his spirited battle against Hodgkins' Disease. Without them, the Sun Devils proved to be the worst three-point shooting team in the Pac-10. In addition, Shell's toughness, intensity and fierce competitive nature were qualities the 2000-2001 Devils lacked on too many occasions.

As if the absence of Shell and Allen weren't enough to give Rob Evans headaches, his starting center went down with a severe ankle sprain two days before the first road trip of Pac-10 play. With Chad Prewitt basically out of the equation for four games, the Sun Devils were ill equipped to handle the Washington-Washington State road games, as well as home contests with UCLA and USC. Prewitt gave ASU an effective low post scorer (10 ppg), as well as an inside defensive and rebounding presence. Minus 'Big Red,' the Devils went spiraling to their worst-ever start in league play (0--7), setting the tone for the remainder of the season.

And yet, disappointing as their finish proved to be, this year's Sun Devils did have some bright spots ('Kodak Moments,' if you will), and do give hope for the future.

The highlight of the entire season, in my humble opinion, was the emergence of sophomore forward Tommy Smith into one of the premier players at his position in the Pac--10. Before he's done in Tempe, Tommy will go down as one of the all-time greats in ASU basketball history. A 6'9' player with athleticism galore and an incredible wing-span, Smith was one of the conference's top field goal percentage shooters and shot-blockers. You could literally see the confidence grow in this young man game-by-game, even minute-by-minute. Tommy averaged 11 ppg and five rebounds in Pac-10 play, and recorded a pair of double-doubles. On the evening of February 10, Smith etched his name into the conference record book with an incredible 11-of-11 shooting performance (equaling former UCLA star Marques Johnson's Pac-10 mark for shooting accuracy in a league game), en route to a career-high 24 points in ASU's 89--57 victory over the Washington Huskies. And Tommy's only going to get better!

Though his performances lacked consistency, junior forward Awvee Storey was a warrior on the glass, and became only the second Sun Devil (and first since Lester Neal in 1992-93) to lead the Pac-10 in rebounding. He also led the conference with 11 double-doubles, and was named the Pac-10 Player of the Week for the first week in February, after averaging 20 points and nine rebounds in wins at Oregon State and Oregon (incidentally, ASU swept its four games with the Oregon schools, only the second time the Devils have done that since joining the Pac-10 in 1978).

The Sun Devils' lone senior, point guard Alton Mason, frequently distinguished himself in his final year at ASU, ranking among the Pac-10 leaders in assists and steals (and in ASU's all-time top 10 in both categories), and ending up as the Sun Devils' top scorer for the season. Mason's career-high 30-point effort against top-ranked Stanford on January 4 was the best individual performance against the Cardinal all season long (for good measure, Mason dropped 23 points on Stanford in the season finale in Palo Alto on March 10). And not even Walt Disney could've scripted a better ending to AT's home career than the bank shot with less than five seconds remaining that lifted the Devils over Oregon State 61-59 in the final home game of the season March 3. Of greater significance than any of these accomplishments, however, are the other ways in which Alton grew and matured during his ASU days. He overcame several family tragedies (the death of his father, his mother contracting lupus), became a husband and father, and is on track to receive his degree in May. In many ways, Mason to me epitomizes a lot of what's terrific about collegiate athletics.

There were some games to remember, as well: the 32-point shellacking of Washington at home...non-conference wins over five teams (Southern Utah, Winthrop, Kent State, BYU and Charlotte) that ended up in the NCAA Tournament...and, without question, the game of the year February 4 at Oregon, a day on which the Devils could do no wrong in routing the Ducks 99--72 in one of the most hostile road environments in the Pac-10. Though his potential game-winning basket was disallowed because it was launched after time had expired, Awvee Storey's half-court shot at game's end against San Diego State December 16 was also one for the mental scrap book.

I know for a fact that Sun Devil fans (in both football and basketball) are weary of hearing the phrase 'better days are ahead.' Yet, a close examination of the state of the men's basketball program tells me that there are a lot of legitimate reasons for optimism heading into next season.

The anticipated return of Tanner Shell and Justin Allen (both of whom, by the way, appear to have significantly improved their jump shots during their season away from competition) will give the Devils height, depth, toughness and improved perimeter play. Also expected to return next fall is Kenny Crandall, the 6'4' guard from Mesa's Mountain View High School who left ASU after his freshman year to go on a two-year LDS mission to Eugene, OR. We had a chance visit with Kenny during our road trip to the Oregon schools in early February, and he appeared to have added a significant amount of bulk and maturity since last we saw him in March 1999.

In addition, ASU has recruited an outstanding 6'4' point guard from southern California, Jason Braxton, who averaged close to a triple-double a game at Canyon Springs H.S. in Moreno Valley, CA., this past season. I've never heard Rob Evans rave about a player (ANY player) the way he does about Braxton, who signed with ASU in November and, according to Evans, can push the ball up court as quickly and capably as any guard he's ever seen. The Sun Devil coaching staff is also recruiting one of the top JC players in the country, and hopes to add a name or two to Braxton's on their incoming list of players, when spring signing day comes around in April.

It is Evans' hope that these newcomers and returnees will not only contribute their individual skills, but also thru their presence create a heightened degree of competition within the entire squad for starting jobs and playing time. With more bodies added to the mix, those who did play this past season will need to step up their games if they hope to continue logging significant minutes on the floor.

Finally, something I've said several times in the past merits repeating here. The biggest asset ASU has in its hopes for marked improvement next year is the coaching of Rob Evans and his staff (Russ Pennell, Tony Benford, Dan O'Dowd and Ron DuBois). Through a long, difficult season, these men never stopped working, caring, teaching, demanding the best from their squad. Frustrating though this season was for him (as well as for Devils' fans), Rob's been down this road before, building the basketball program at Mississippi. Keep in mind: his third year at Ole' Miss was Evans' worst, but was part of the groundwork for a Rebel program that has now been to the post-season five straight years (including four NCAA berths). I genuinely believe that, when all is said and done, you'll be able to categorize the difficult days of the 2000-2001 ASU men's basketball season as an investment, whose dividends will be paid off in the years to come.

Dare I say it, Sun Devil faithful: better days are ahead!

Tim Healey is the radio play-by-play voice of ASU men's basketball for the Sun Devil Sports Network. Tim can be reached by e-mail at: tjheal@imap3.asu.edu, or at: TIMJHEALEY@aol.com.

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