Men's Hoops Preview For 2003-2004
Oct. 9, 2003
Now the fun begins.
Never before has Rob Evans and his Sun Devil staff looked forward to an off-season like they did this past summer. While past hot days in Tempe had Evans talking about building a program, potential, future facilities and just last year a young freshman named Ike Diogu who had a chance to be good, the talk this summer and fall regarding Arizona State men's basketball no longer centered around what could happen but what did happen and how it can -- and should -- happen again.
Basically, preseason hope has been replaced by preseason hype. Pick up a preseason magazine and an Arizona State player wearing number five is on the cover, and it is not Eddie House. Tossed out was the line that the last NCAA Tournament was in 1995, it has been replaced by talk of the convincing win over Memphis in the 2003 NCAA Tournament. You want a preseason Pac-10 Player of the Year? His residence hall is in Tempe. The best locker room in college basketball? An argument can be made for one whose paint is being air-dried at Wells Fargo Arena, paid for by a basketball-crazed donor who has seen enough to know more wins and quality kids are on the way. Are graduation rates getting better? Darn right they are as ASU's 1999 freshman class is expected to graduate five in the next school year.
'We all worked very hard for those five years to build a program that is capable of challenging for an NCAA Tournament berth year in and year out, and eventually challenge for the Pac-10 title every year. You want a program that consistently has a winning record, because when you do that, you consistently find yourself in the postseason,' notes Evans, who took ASU to the NCAA Tournament for just the third time in the school's past 22 seasons. 'But one thing I did not want was a flash in the pan season. Now that some of our players have been to the NCAAs, they know what it takes and how fun it can be. They want to get back. You need some luck as well. But a lot of luck is when preparation meets opportunity. And we are now a prepared program. '
The ASU staff has taken the proper steps to make sure it can sustain and improve on its success from last year.
'We feel as though we have recruited great players with great character,' says the 57-year old Evans. 'We like our kids, and we are really looking forward to coaching our new kids. We have a good nucleus of returners and as talented of a group of newcomers as I have ever coached. That is what happens as you build your program...you want your talent to get better each and every year. That has happened and we are doing everything possible to make sure that it continues.
'We told our fans last year our talent was improving, as we had a pretty good freshman coming in who we thought would be among the best in the Pac-10 and in the nation. Ike made us look pretty good.'
With regards to celebrities and athletes who can go by one name and make it work such as Pele', Cher and Michael, Arizona State basketball now has Ike.
When Ikechukwa Somotochukwa Diogu (best known as Ike) set his size 18 Adidas on campus last fall, no one could have imagined the impact he would make. Consider the following:
'The numbers were incredibly impressive,' acknowledges Evans.
More numbers to toss at you, and they are the most impressive: 90, 11, 1 and 1.
Ninety is the number of seasons in ASU basketball lore heading into last year.
Eleven is the number of NCAA Tournament appearances previous to last year without Diogu, or roughly one trip every eight years.With the 6-8 record smasher, ASU is one-for-one on getting to the Big Dance.
Freshman records were set by the Garland, Texas, native for starts (32), points (607), points per game (19.0), field goals made (209), rebounds (249), rebounds per game (7.8) and minutes (1,030). His 18 boards vs. Oregon in the Pac-10 Tournament not only was an ASU freshman record, but a Pac-10 Tournament record.
Even more amazing was his ASU record 245 free throw attempts (7.66 per game). It could be argued that Diogu was the most efficient player in college basketball last year. He shot 60.8 percent from the field, eighth in the nation and tied for first in the league. In the 18 Pac-10 games, he was even better at 63.8 percent.
Now here is the scary part...he has done everything possible to make himself better. What did Al McGuire say, something about the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores? Diogu doesn't want to let a good quote go bad. He took his game to the Pan Am Games this summer, where he was the youngest player on the team. He seems to have trimmed weight, but the scales say he weighs about the same 250-pounds he did last year. What this means, according to Evans, is that last year was a preview of things to come. ASU has an even hungrier Diogu.
'As good as he was last year, he can be even better,' says Evans. 'I think Ike will attack the glass more and show a good perimeter game. He has a chance to be one of the best in the nation. He really didn't have a bad game last year and if he was struggling in one area he would reinvent himself.'
There is no question that with Diogu, the ASU frontcourt will be tough to deal with no matter whom plays along side him. But the key to the season will probably be what happens on the perimeter, where ASU will have to replace the explosive wing Curtis Millage, who arguably was one of the top players in the Pac-10 at season's end last year, and back-up point guard Kyle Dodd, who was consistent and dependable. Now that Dodd is gone, the point guard duties will go full-time to junior Jason Braxton, who has started 45 games in his career and played in all 61. Since taking over the point guard duties in his freshman year, Braxton has led the Sun Devils to a NIT and then a NCAA berth the past two seasons. Although his shooting percentages have been down, no one is in the gym more than Braxton shooting. Athletically, no one is better.
'Jason has worked extremely hard to improve his weaknesses, and I know it will pay off for him this year,' says Evans. 'I think the team will take on his personality this year, he's a tough kid who doesn't back down from anyone. His experience will help us, as not many freshman point guards have started in 20 games. Now he has a bunch of games under his belt from last year. That will help us win some close games.'
Waiting in the wings at point guard will be redshirt freshman Kevin Kruger. The 6-2 Kruger gave Braxton and Dodd fits last year in practice with great ballhandling and passing but most of all an outside shooting touch that is expected to be the best on the team and will stretch defenses. You can expect to see him on the floor at the end of games, as he is a solid free throw shooter.
'Kevin is going to give us a shooter off the bench and someone who understands time and possession,' notes Evans. 'Kevin knows who to get the ball to and when. And if you leave him open, it is two points, or three if he is beyond the arc. He will spread the defense. Redshirting him was an incredible bonus for him. He is not starting at square one and he understands what we are looking for each trip down the floor.'
Although many will typecast Kruger as a point guard, the game could dictate him playing the shooting guard alongside Braxton.
'I don't imagine a team zoning us with Kevin in the game, and physically he has improved with the redshirt year,' adds Evans. 'He will be a solid four-year player.'
Evans has a cast of players to find an off-guard. Senior Jamal Hill can play both wings, and he showed flashes of 'spurtability' last year. Hill was in double figures in 10 games and shot 75.9 percent from the free throw line. He started four games and the ASU staff is hoping the Oakland, Calif., native can make the usual improvements by a junior college transfer in between his junior and senior seasons.
'Jamal now has a year of experience and understands the commitment it takes to win on this level,' notes Evans. 'He has matured as a player and stayed here all summer to become a better player. We have a lot of competition on the wings and Jamal will have a good chance to play a lot of minutes if he focuses.'
Another experienced player on the wing is senior Kenny Crandall. Crandall has played in 78 games in a three-season career that started in 1998-99, Evans' first year in Tempe. The Mesa, Ariz., native went on a two-year LDS Mission from 1999-2001 and came back to a different program. He started in 23 games his freshman year and averaged 28.4 minutes. Last year, he did not start a game and averaged 7.9 minutes as he battled injuries. But Evans knows what he can get out of Crandall, and he expects a lot of leadership and smarts from his 23-year old senior.
'Kenny understands the game as he was a point guard in high school,' notes Evans. 'When he is on the floor, it is like having another point guard out there. He is a good free throw shooter (76.8 percent in his career) and can make the three-point shot (88 in 78 games).'
He also has been good at the free throw line in the games that matter most, as he is 33-of-38 (.868) in Pac-10 play. If he is healthy, Evans knows he can turn to him and gain a shooting touch.
'Kenny has played the past two years at about 50 percent. He sacrificed rest to help the team. He is as healthy as he has ever been since he arrived on campus. I look forward to coaching a healthy Kenny Crandall.'
Two newcomers will battle for time at guard, and both have shown teammates in fall pick-up games that minutes at the guard spot will have to be earned.
Steve Moore, a slick southpaw who can drain the three-pointer, enters the mix at the wing. A native of Los Angeles, Moore signed with Arizona State in the spring after visiting Tempe the weekend ASU clinched fourth place in the Pac-10 and earned a berth to the NCAA Tournament. His campus host was Curtis Millage, the man Rob Evans and his staff need to replace this year.
'Steve came here on his visit and it was a tribute to Curtis that he signed here,' notes Evans. 'As a junior college player he will have his share of ups and downs in his first year, but we have been very fortunate with our past two spring signees, and we expect the same out of Steve.'
Moore can do the same. He once nailed nine three-pointers in a junior college contest and at 6-4 is big enough to defend stronger guards. He is also very athletic, as he was a 17th-round draft pick of the Seattle Mariners in the 2000 Major League Baseball draft. And he will know how to take advantage of a big man feeding the shooter, as he played with Tyson Chandler on the Dominguez High School national championship team in 1999-2000.
'When you recruit junior college kids in the spring, you are looking to fill a need,' adds Evans. 'We feel our off-guard is going to be in great shape over the next few years. Steve is going to have a great two-year career and will blend with our current players very well.'
While Steve Moore was signed to fill a need, it was only because the man the Sun Devils recruited to be the off-guard will have some usual freshman growing pains. But just like last year when Ike Diogu stepped on campus and Evans said good things, the ASU mentor has some quality things to say about Tron Smith as well.
'It will be hard to recruit a freshman who will post the same numbers that Ike did last year,' Evans acknowledges. 'But we feel we have one of the best guards in the nation in Tron Smith. He competes, is very strong and can get to the basket or shoot the ball. We had our eye on Tron for three years, and it will be good to see him in a Sun Devil uniform.'
Smith is an explosive 6-2, 195 pounds and has shown the ability to make a three-point shot or get fouled and make a bucket in fall drills. He was a high school teammate of Jason Braxton and the duo should become a regular headache to Pac-10 coaches this year. Smith physically is ready to go, and he arrived on campus in the summer so the weight room and conditioning program have helped him already. He was on several top-50 recruiting lists and ESPN had him ranked as high as No. 27 after last year.
'Tron has a chance to make a big impact in his freshman year. But the good thing is that unlike Ike last year, he won't be forced to play a lot of minutes. With guys like Kenny, Jamal and Steve, we can bring him along at a good pace. But it will be hard to keep him off the floor.'
With Braxton, Crandall, Kruger, Hill, Moore and Smith Evans knows he can find some lineups that will blend with Diogu and company down low. Look for the backcourt to put a lot of pressure on the ball.
'I expect us to put more pressure on teams full court,' adds Evans. 'That has been our goal since we came here, but the lack of numbers prevented it. We have had guards play nearly 35 minutes a game. I expect the minutes to be more balanced this year, and as a result we will have some fresh bodies.'
'Once he gets some game experience, Allen Morill is going to be a load for anyone to handle inside,' says Evans. 'I think he is going to be a big surprise in this league. He brings a lot to the table. He understands the game like a point guard, but can defend any position on the floor. If he was playing last year, he probably would have been starting.'
The 6-7, 230-pound Morill sat out last year with a knee injury and concentrated on academics. Once his knee healed he was practicing daily, and he was the only player who could compete with Diogu on a daily basis. Some of the coaching staff even joked - even if it was to get Diogu's competitive juices flowing during a long practice in the middle of February - that maybe the best player in the Pac-10 (Diogu) wasn't even the best player on the practice floor on some days.
Morill's game is no flash and all business. He will rebound and defend. He will score if you allow him. And no one is stronger. Just like Diogu, he is Texas-grown. Unlike a typical Pac-10 basketball player, he is a former boxer. His nickname is Truck. Combine all that and you get the feeling rebounds will be hard to come by with him around.
'I think if you ask our guys who they think is going to be the biggest surprise this year, Allen would win in a unanimous vote,' says Evans. 'We can't wait to get him out of the practice gear and into the uniform.'
Another player they can't wait to get in Sun Devil gear is 6-9 freshman Keith Wooden. Wooden is long and can run. A native of Lawrence, Kansas, he was on all of the nation's top 100 lists. His best days are probably a few years away, but if he is running with Diogu and keeps his focus he is bound to have some good games in his rookie year.
'Keith is learning how hard it is to be a top player in the league,' Evans says. 'Every day he has to want to become better. He is learning there are no shortcuts at this level. His attitude is great and we can't wait to coach him for four years. Being on campus all summer has helped him tremendously. He has already matured physically and mentally. We recruited him to play alongside Ike this year, but we know in the future he will be tough enough to be the main man in the middle.'
Another newcomer is Cameroon native Wilfried Fameni. Fameni is 6-7, possesses a good shooting touch and at 230 pounds does not look like a freshman. When the players filed into Evans' office daily to check in with the coach over the summer, they were talking about Fameni. They liked not only his shooting touch, but his tenacity and strength under the boards.
'I really believe Wilfried is going to be one the biggest surprise freshmen in the league this year,' notes Evans. 'I think if you judge freshmen by normal standards, and not by what Ike did last year, you will look at the end of the year and see Wilfried did some great things. He'll be a freshman at times and we will have to work on things with him, but I see great things down the road for him. He has been here all summer and that is going to help him once practices begin.'
Another Texan also will compete for playing time. Chris Low is an athletic 6-8, 220-pound freshman who played with Morill and Diogu in AAU ball. He can shoot and he runs the floor very well.
'I expect Chris to have a great four-year career, much like a Shawn Redhage or Tommy Smith did,' adds Evans. 'We expect him to get better and better every day. Shawn and Tommy did not have many upperclassmen to look up to and played because there was no one else. Chris will have to battle for playing time, but trust me, he will compete and push everyone. If anyone lets up, Chris will be there ready to play. He has a good shot and can jump. The guys were telling me about a baseline dunk he had on Ike this summer that was as good as any. Hearing that your freshman is dunking on your preseason All-American can get you excited.'
With all the newcomers and youth, Evans knows he needs some leadership and guidance from the upperclassmen. Although his minutes have gone down and his statistics won't jump off the page, Evans won't hesitate to tell you what player he has the most respect for when it comes to perseverance. Justin Allen won the 2003 Jimmy V Comeback Player of the Year Award for his fight against Hodgkin's Disease. All he has done since learning of his condition is to get his undergraduate degree in four years with a 3.6 grade-point average.
'We feel as though we have recruited great players with great character.'
Head Coach Rob Evans
'I am a believer in not having excuses, but Justin took that to another level,' says Evans proudly. 'Justin had an excuse, a good one, to relax. But he never let cancer take away his spirit. He never wanted to be treated any different. The young guys have a lot of respect for him. Plus, Kenny and Justin were around for the not-so-great days when we were building the program. They can remind the young guys how it used to be and how we never want to go back.
'When we are on the road, Justin will be a big help with all the little things like keeping freshman nerves down. He has been through a lot. But he also is a great shooter and since he is a fifth-year senior he can help Ike down low. He is big and we expect him to help us. He has a pivotal role this year both on the court and off.'
Evans wants to pencil in the return of athletic Serge Angounou this year, but he is being cautious with the redshirt freshman from last year. Angounou had knee surgery last year in November and is still healing. Right now, Evans is hoping to have him back for Pac-10 season, but there will be no rush.
Angounou physically is an amazing talent who was making as big of an impact in the preseason last year as Diogu. He is 6-8, over 240 pounds and has a motor of a soccer player. His arms and hands are long. If he plays this year, he could make a huge difference. But this year is not what is important to Evans.
'Serge needs to take his time and we will bring him around slowly. If this year is meant to be we will make it happen. But we have him for four years, that is what everyone needs to remember.'
Although there are not general managers in college basketball, ASU's player-coach is Brandon Goldman. One of the most unselfish players Evans has ever coached, 'B.G.' is the coach in the locker room, during pick-up games and on recruiting visits. While he could have left after last year, he wanted to stick around because of his loyalty to Evans and his staff.
'Brandon is special. We accomplished a lot last year and Brandon had a lot to do with it.'
Senior Jamie Andrisevic has a year of experience. At 6-9, he provides solid practice competition and won't back down from the starters.
'Guys like Brandon and Jamie help you, because they keep your team fresh,' notes Evans. 'They play a big part in what we are trying to do at Arizona State.'
Also joining the squad this fall will be walkons Robby Alridge and Bradley Dedrick.
So what kind of team will this be?
'First off, we can't wait to coach this team,' Evans emphasizes. 'We have young kids who are very talented. We have experienced players who are very unselfish. I think chemistry is going to be a strength this year.
We also know that there have been very average teams that got along well, but if you don't have talent it won't matter. We have talent. We addressed our outside shooting problems with guys like Tron, Steve and Wilfried, and we think a healthy Kenny Crandall and Justin Allen can help us there as well. How good we will be also will depend on how ready we are to play during Pac-10 season.'
Evans sees the Pac-10 being as good as ever from top to bottom.
'No one is going down in talent in this league. Stanford and Arizona are not coming down. I expect Washington and USC to be anxious to move up with good young players. Nate Robinson (Washington) and Desmon Farmer (USC) are as explosive as they come. UCLA will have a new attitude. Cal has some great returners and recruited very well. Oregon has Luke Jackson and plays very well at home. Oregon State is in the process of upgrading its program, which can be tough in this league, but they have a great young point guard and they play very hard. And Washington State has a first-round draft pick as its leader. All the coaches have competed in big-time leagues. It should be a lot of fun this year.'
Some of the fun will be in watching his own team compete for playing time. With competition at each spot, Evans knows one thing for sure about 2003-2004.
'I only have one guarantee for the players and that is how much they play will depend on them. If they aren't on top of their game at both ends of the floor, they will have a great seat to watch. Because with this depth, we will find five guys for 40 minutes to play as hard as we want them to play.'