Men's Hoops Seniors Hoping To Leave On A Great Note

March 12, 2003

By Brian Gomez, TheSunDevils.com

LOS ANGELES -- While some men's college basketball fans are inclined to attribute Arizona State's success to the emergence of freshman phenom Ike Diogu, head coach Rob Evans knows his team wouldn't be where it is today had it not been for the invaluable contributions of his senior class.

Diogu naturally garners the most attention on a team that reached its potential this season after years of shortcomings and injuries.

After all, the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year does lead the Sun Devils in both scoring (18.8 points) and rebounding (7.6 boards) and he also is shooting 60.9 percent (184-for-302) from the field to rank second in the conference in field-goal percentage.

But without a heap of skilled leaders surrounding him, Diogu wouldn't be regarded as one of the nation's top freshman and ASU (19-10, 11-7 Pac-10 might still be wallowing in mediocrity instead of making a push toward the NCAA Tournament.

'It's been a long, hard drive, but it's been a great journey for us, especially because of these seniors we have on this team,' said Evans, whose six seniors hope to carry the No. 4-seeded Sun Devils to their first Pac-10 Tournament victory since 1990 when they face No. 5 Oregon at 3:50 p.m. PT/4:50 p.m. MST Thursday at Staples Center. 'You're never pleased unlessyou're undefeated, but I'm pleased with our effort, I'm pleased with the leadership we've had from these seniors and I'm pleased with the way this program has grown.

'I'm extremely blessed to have the seniors I have. If you can believe it, we signed these guys a week after we went through our problems. These guys stayed committed to us, they stayed committed for four years and they will be committed to Arizona State University for a long time.'

To fully comprehend how much this run toward the NCAA Tournament means, you have to realize what condition the program was in when guard Kyle Dodd and forwards Tommy Smith, Donnell Knight and Shawn Redhage signed with the Sun Devils four years ago.

In 1997-98, ASU endured an 18-14 campaign that ended in the opening round of the National Invitational Tournament under interim coach Don Newman before Evans came to Tempe to spark new life into a program barred by a checkered past. There were many ambitions and a newfound sense of hope within the program, but few people thought Evans could duplicate the success he attained at Mississippi.

'We had a game plan when we came here and we had a game plan when we went to Mississippi, so when we came here, we tried to sell our game plan to my players,' Evans said. 'If they came here and if they gave themselves to the coaches and did what we asked them to do, they were going to be playing in the postseason and we were going to turn this program around.'

Evans went 14-16 in his first year at the helm and the Sun Devils finished ninth in the conference as they struggled with chemistry. The following season, he got a boost with a recruiting class that also included swingmen Justin Allen and Tanner Shell.

'The thing that excited me was coming here and building some tradition out here,' Redhage said. 'Coach just sold that something great was going to happen out here, and I think it's finally happening.'

In the seniors' first season, ASU compiled a 19-13 record and finished tied for fourth place in the Pac-10, its best conference finish since 1995 when center Mario Bennett and forward Ron Riley helped take a team coached by Bill Frieder to the Sweet Sixteen. However, the Sun Devils were denied an NCAA Tournament berth and they had to settle for another trip to the NIT.

'We've come a long way,' Smith said. 'I can remember the very first year when Eddie House was here and we were all basically just running around screening for Eddie.'

After the next two years were scorned by injuries and inconsistencies, some people thought Evans might jump ship and abandon one of his biggest rebuilding projects. Evans even had a lucrative offer from New Mexico within his grasp, but he stayed loyal to his players and patiently waited out the storm in pursuit of brighter days.

Now that those days have finally come, they couldn't possibly mean more to ASU's seniors, many of whom are having the type of breakout seasons they've been longing for.

'We see ourselves as the foundation because we've been through all the ups and downs of the program,' Dodd said. 'To see the people around here excited about Sun Devil basketball games, that's gratifying to us. There's a little buzz around here right now and it's just exciting to see what a great job coach Evans has done of bringing good players and good people in here.'

Senior shooting guard Curtis Millage ranks fifth in Pac-10 play in scoring with an average of 17.4 points per game. Smith was named the Pac-10 Player of the Week on Monday after averaging 20.5 points, 11 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.5 blocks in a home sweep of the Oregon schools during which he posted back-to-back double-doubles for the first time in his four-year career.

Redhage has scored in double figures 11 times this year after accomplishing the feat only three times in 29 games as a junior. With a Pac-10 leading 4.62 assist-to-turnover ratio, Dodd has been the consistent force the Sun Devils need to do some damage in the postseason.

Even though Knight has assumed a changed role since losing his starting spot earlier this month in a trip to the Bay Area schools, he still ranks third on the team in rebounding with an average of 4.1 boards per game.

Senior reserve forward Chris Osborne is averaging 4.8 minutes in 16 games.

'The seniors worked really hard for four years and they deserve to go to the (NCAA) Tournament,' Diogu said. 'They did a good job helping me out too because it was my first year of playing college basketball. They told me what to expect and they just helped all of us out. They put in so much hard work for four years, and now it's finally paying off.'

And some people say the big man hogs the spotlight. He doesn't mind sharing it, particularly when he has a group of talented seniors at his side.

Reach the reporter at brian.gomez@asu.edu.

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