Pac-10 Tourney Preview

March 13, 2003

By Brian Gomez,

LOS ANGELES -- This time around, Arizona State is the team in the driver's seat heading into a rubber game at the Pac-10 Tournament.

Last season, the then-No. 7-seeded Sun Devils were the ones fighting for their lives against then-No. 2 Arizona, which already had its 18th consecutive NCAA Tournament berth secured well before a 73-56 opening-round victory.

The Wildcats are still atop the conference standings this year, but ASU controls its own destiny for the first time since the 1999-2000 season when head coach Rob Evans' team was snubbed of an invitation to the Big Dance. The in-state rivals could meet Friday in the second round of the Pac-10 Tournament if No. 1 UA handles No. 8 UCLA and if No. 4 ASU keeps up its half of the bargain against No. 5 Oregon at 3:50 p.m. PT/4:50 p.m. MST at Staples Center.

For now, the Sun Devils (19-10, 11-7 Pac-10) are directing all their attention toward the Ducks, a team they beat last week to move a step closer toward receiving an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time since 1995.

'I've been around this game long enough to know that nobody knows about bubbles,' said Evans, whose team compiled a 6-3 record in the second half of conference play to finish fourth in the Pac-10. 'Our total focus all year long has been the next hurdle, and Oregon is the next hurdle. We just focus on the next game. We don't focus on something down the line.'

Much more is at stake for Oregon (20-9, 10-8) than ASU, which has seemingly locked up a place in the field of 65 thanks to its high RPI (32), its strong schedule (19th), several quality wins (Utah, Purdue, California and Oregon) and no bad losses. Although most postseason prognosticators have the Ducks going to the NCAA Tournament, head coach Ernie Kent can't rest comfortably with his team's RPI ballooning in the 50s.

'The key thing is to not worry about all that stuff you hear and to just focus on the contest and the battle,' Kent said. 'We tried to create the urgency that is there, where we need to win the first game. Our focus is just on that and we're not trying to speculate one way or the other.'

Regardless of what's on the line, Thursday's game simply comes down to execution for the Pac-10 foes that split their season series. The Sun Devils were victimized by Oregon's 80.8 percent (21-for-26) shooting from the floor in the second half on Jan. 4 in a 94-73 setback at McArthur Court in Eugene. Two months later, they held the Ducks to a 31.3 percent (10-for-32) effort after the break and four players scored in double figures en route to a 91-77 triumph at Wells Fargo Arena.

Freshman forward Ike Diogu figures to again make his presence felt against Oregon. In two games versus the Ducks, he has hauled down 22 rebounds to go along with 44 points on 12-of-22 shooting from the field.

'I haven't played in anything even close to (the Pac-10 Tournament),' said Diogu, only the ninth freshman to earn All-Pac-10 honors since the Arizona schools joined the conference in the 1978-79 season. 'My gym in my high school wasn't very big, so the atmosphere is all new to me.'

Both teams will be at full strength Thursday minus any fatigue from tests that coincide with the Pac-10 Tournament. Several Sun Devils took proctored exams Wednesday in Los Angeles and senior shooting guard Curtis Millage missed an afternoon workout to take a midterm on the Tempe campus. Millage arrived in town late Wednesday night.

'We're not the only ones that are concerned about academics in this league,' Evans said. 'Academically, the whole year is important, not just three or four days or one week. I don't know that there's any difference between them now and when we're playing in exempt games. Outside of the fact that somebody may be taking a final exam, what's the difference between now and November or December?'

Kent said several of his players won't take proctored exams until Thursday morning, just a few hours before tip-off of, perhaps, his team's biggest game of the season. Oregon is currently in the middle of finals.

'We want to stay on our academic schedule, so they will be taking finals first thing in the morning,' Kent said. 'We've done that in the past and it seems to have helped us, so we want to stay on that track.'

History sides with ASU, as No. 5-seeded teams are a combined 0-5 in the previous five conference tournaments. The Sun Devils have won four of the past six meetings between the schools, which have never met in the Pac-10 Tournament.

Although the Ducks don't have any dominating post players, they are 18-1 when their big men -- forwards Robert Johnson and Ian Crosswhite and centers Matt Short, Brian Helquist and Jay Anderson -- combine for at least 22 points. They are also 15-0 when they shoot better from the floor than their opposition.

'I know what we've got to do to win the game,' said ASU senior forward Tommy Smith, who was named the Pac-10 Player of the Week on Monday after marking his second straight double-double with 24 points and 11 rebounds against Oregon. 'We have to be the aggressor, we have to win the rebounding war and we have to just play tough.'

The Sun Devils will key in on Oregon junior guard Luke Ridnour, one of only three Pac-10 players to score in double figures in all 29 games this season. Ridnour was named the Pac-10 Player of the Year earlier this week after finishing the regular season second in the conference in scoring (20 points per game) and first in assists (6.5 per game).

ASU must also keep an eye on Oregon junior guard Andre Joseph, who has yet to find his groove since serving a one-game suspension in late February. The Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year ranks fourth on the team in scoring with an average of 9.8 points per game.

'He got himself knocked off track a little bit and we need to get him going,' Kent said. 'He has not been himself in terms of what he brings to the floor. These are big games coming up here and we've had conversations with him.'

The Sun Devils are 3-1 at neutral sites this season with wins over Utah (Maui Invitational) and Purdue (Las Vegas Showdown). They will continue to rely on Millage, who ranks fifth in the conference with an average of 17.4 points per game in Pac-10 play, but they'll also need contributions from others.

Senior forward Donnell Knight hasn't scored in double figures since Jan. 30 when he had 10 points in ASU's 75-70 home win over then-No. 20-ranked California. Sun Devil junior swingman Jamal Hill has posted just three points in the past four games combined.

WHAT'S AT STAKE: ASU is gunning for its first 20-win season since 1995 and only its second in the past 13 years. The Sun Devils have advanced to the NCAA Tournament only twice in the last 21 seasons.

THE POWER OF THE RALLY MONKEY: Ever since receiving an Anaheim Angels rally monkey from ASU senior point guard Kyle Dodd's parents before the March 1 game at California, play-by-play announcer Tim Healey has set the mascot next to his stats monitor. Healey will continue the bizarre tradition Thursday at the Pac-10 Tournament.

ALLEN NOMINATED FOR AWARD: On Wednesday, Sun Devil junior swingman Justin Allen was named one of 10 finalists for the V Foundation Comeback Award, which is given annually to a college basketball player who has accomplished a personal triumph in the face of adversity. The award will be presented next month on behalf of the V Foundation for Cancer Research in conjunction with ESPN's coverage of the Final Four.

Allen returned to the team last season after completing seven months of chemotherapy to treat Hodgkin's Disease, which was detected in its Stage II phase in September 2000. He has played in nine games this year.

LONGTIME COACH HONORED: Former ASU head coach Ned Wulk (1958-1982) was inducted into the Pac-10 Hall of Honor Wednesday night. He follows Byron Scott, the school's initial inductee last year.

Wulk amassed a 406-272 (.599) overall record in 25 years at the helm. During Wulk's time in Tempe, the Sun Devils made eight NCAA Tournament appearances, including four in a row from 1960-64.

TOURNEY COVERAGE: Every game in the first and second rounds of the Pac-10 tournament can be seen on Fox Sports Net. The championship game (3:15 p.m. PT/4:15 p.m. MST) will be televised on CBS. All of ASU's games can also be heard on ESPN Radio 860 AM.

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