Sun Devils Excited About NCAA Possibilities

March 20, 2003

OKLAHOMA CITY -- With all the hype and anticipation leading up to the Arizona State men's basketball team's first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 1995, things can seem quite complicated.

There are practices and press conferences to attend. There are game tapes to watch. And there are scouting reports to read.

But as a season filled with ups and downs finally reaches a crescendo at the ultimate destination, the Sun Devils are prepared to face reality.

'It's one and done, so the stakes are high,' ASU freshman forward Ike Diogu said.

Although the No. 10-seeded Sun Devils (19-11) are three-point underdogs heading into Thursday's West Regional opener against No. 7 Memphis (23-6), they see themselves as a team with a legitimate chance of making some noise in the Big Dance.

Some of the matchups don't favor ASU, but all that goes out the window when you've got a guy like Diogu, who leads the team with an average of 19.1 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. He is the only Sun Devil to have scored in double figures in all 30 games this season.

'It's kind of easy to accept a guy like him who is putting up 20 points a game,' ASU senior forward Tommy Smith said. 'If he wants the ball down low, you give him the ball. In order to stop him, you've got to put four guys on him.'

Diogu figures to have his hands full Thursday against Memphis senior Chris Massie, a powerful forward known for his ability to bulldoze through the post. Massie, who missed the first half of the season while academically ineligible, is shooting 60.3 percent from the field and he has marked 15 double-doubles in only 22 games this season.

'How we guard Chris Massie is going to be a real big key,' Diogu said. 'He really does make their team go.'

The marquee matchup will serve as one of the many story lines in a game played between two teams eager to advance past the opening round. The winner will probably face No. 2 Kansas, which is expected to beat No. 15 Utah State in Thursday's finale at the Ford Center.

Many of ASU's seniors have said during the past week that they didn't put in four years of hard work to simply bow out in the first round. Sun Devil senior shooting guard Curtis Millage shares a similar sentiment, even though he hasn't played in Tempe as long as some of his teammates.

'I'm just blessed to be here to help them get where they need to be,' Millage said. 'I haven't been here for four years, but I was one of the pieces of the puzzle that helped them get to where they needed to get. I'm just really happy for the coaching staff and for our seniors who have been here.'

If the Sun Devils want to advance to the second round and whatever lies beyond that, they'll have to do a few simple things against the Tigers:

� Get contributions from someone other than their starters, who have accounted for all but two points in the last two games.

� Limit Massie's touches and don't allow him to get Diogu in foul trouble.

� Shut down Memphis from three-point range and don't let its guards run the floor and get easy buckets in transition.

Of course, those things are a lot easier said than done.

'You certainly have to defend Massie because he can put up numbers on you, but they've got other guys who can play the game,' ASU head coach Rob Evans said. 'I don't think you can focus on only one person and be able to defeat the University of Memphis. We have to play defense as a whole and we have to get some help on a guy like Massie because he's a load to handle.'

The Sun Devils are actually more concerned about themselves than they are with Memphis, a team that enters Thursday's opener baring a large chip on its shoulder after getting shipped to the West Region. They need more production from sophomore point guard Jason Braxton, senior forward Donnell Knight and junior swingman Jamal Hill, whom have combined for 11 points in the past four games.

'We shortened our bench the last five or six games of the season because we needed to try to win some ballgames to get to this tournament,' Evans said. 'Now that we have gotten to this point, we will go back to giving some guys some rest and playing a few more guys.'

After relinquishing 83 points and turning the ball over 18 times last week in a disheartening loss to Oregon in the opening round of the Pac-10 Tournament, ASU hopes to increase its defensive tenacity and also make smarter decisions on offense. The Sun Devils have knocked down their outside shots lately, as they are 48.7 percent from the field in the past five games.

'I don't know that you have an advantage over anybody in this tournament when you get to this point because all the teams are pretty good,' Evans said. 'But we do have a very fine basketball team and we're a team that can play a lot of different ways. We have six seniors on this ball club, so I don't think they're going to be in awe of anybody.'

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

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