2002-03 Season in Review

The long and arduous task of rebuilding the Arizona State men's basketball program took a giant step in the right direction in year five of the Rob Evans era. DevilsDigest.com reflects upon the first 20-win season at ASU since 1995 and its implications for the future of the program.

There's no debating the success of this year's version of the Sun Devil men's basketball team. Picked to finish 4th by the media prior to the season, ASU made good on the forecast and perhaps one-upped the general media consensus with a first-round win in the NCAA Tournament. Achieving a 20-win season for the first time since 1991 and an NCAA berth for the first time since 1995, Rob Evans can hang his hat on the success of a team that "reached its potential" as he put it, and look forward with renewed vigor to the future.

However, it's impossible to look forward without a clear understanding of the past. Rob Evans has now re-built a decimated program in five years time and for that he should be congratulated. When Evans signed, players like Kyle Dodd, Shawn Redhage, Justin Allen, Tommy Smith and Donnell Knight in his first recruiting class, he knew that from a basketball perspective, it would be a tough road to hoe. Instead of going with a quick fix of troubled students and junior college players, Evans recruited a handful of quality individuals, with marginal high-major talent. It was a decision that was tough and even brought him some notable flack from impatient fans and alum even all the way up to and through this breakout season.

Now however, all five of those players are scheduled to graduate within the year, as well as seniors Curtis Millage and Chris Osborne, both of whom transferred into the program prior to the 2001-02 season. When Rob Evans or members of his staff go into the homes of some of the finest high school basketball players in the country, they can tell parents one thing that most other college coaches cannot - their players' graduate. In fact, all of those players that have stayed at ASU for the last 4-5 years will have done so under the watch of Evans.

Of course, the ASU head coach can also tell coaches, players, and parents alike that indeed, a player can go to a school where he not only will he graduate, but play in one of the best conferences in the nation, as well as play in the NCAA Tournament. Put those three factors together and combine them with the other attractive selling points of the University (facilities, academic support, etc.) and it makes for a pretty compelling argument that Arizona State is a desirable destination for any future college basketball player. Certainly, it's an argument that could not be made at many, if not most programs around the country.

And while Evans has successfully completed this part of the journey, the last twelve months certainly presented significant obstacles. First, there was the dirt-bike accident that left Kenny Crandall with a compound fracture to the lower leg, an injury that severely limited his mobility on the court this season. Late last summer, Chris Osborne was involved in a single-car traffic accident that saw his vehicle flip numerous times.

Not long after these accidents, ASU ran into other significant incidents that were perhaps even more troubling. Freshman Allen Morill was denied initial eligibility and his appeal was denied. Fellow recruit, Serge Angounou, who was expected to start at small forward, was injured in the first exhibition game of the season and was lost for the year. Worst of all, Curtis Millage was held off the court for the first several games of the season due to an academic snafu that was no fault of his own, during which time he seriously considered leaving the program.

Despite all of these incidents, Arizona State persevered and that in and of itself is a remarkable accomplishment. This is due in large part to the character of the outgoing seniors that were recruited for a specific purpose: To be a stabilizing force in the program.

The Devils could very well sneak up on a lot of people next year. With the departure of four senior starters and several other valuable role players, there's no questioning the fact that a lot of experience and productivity will be lost. That deficiency should be tempered however by the exceptional recruiting classes assembled by the coaching over the past two years.

There were rumblings from within the program that both Serge Angounou and Allen Morill were capable of starting on the team at both forward positions this past season. This is a remarkable statement considering the players they would have replaced in the lineup (Smith and Redhage) were seniors who eventually led their team to a NCAA Tournament berth. As stated above, with the addition of Angounou and Morill to the front court, there's already no doubt that next year's team will be the most physically advanced group in recent history.

Not only will the front court starters be talented and physical, but the depth in this area will impressive to say the least. Keith Wooden should compete for a starting position with either Angounou or Morill and stands a realistic chance be a substantial contributor. Any lineup combination including those three players, along with Diogu, will be among the strongest and most gifted in the Pac-10 next year. This prediction takes nothing away from the intrigue of Chris Low and Will Fameni, both of whom are highly regarded in their own right and will certainly push the aforementioned players for floor minutes.

In the back court, a battle to take over the shooting guard responsibilities left by the graduation of Curtis Millage has the potential to become the most interesting and fiercely competitive on the team. Tron Smith, a heralded top 75 national recruit and likely all-state player in California will compete with Jamal Hill and Steve Moore for playing time. It's conceivable that one of these players ends up on the fringe of the rotation. This competition should foster solid play and help create less of a drop-off than one would otherwise expect at the position.

The battle for the starting point guard position will also be another anticipated and closely watched contest. Jason Braxton has been known to shoot the ball much better in practice than in games. This has been the case for quite some time and if Braxton is able to translate his comfort level to gameday, it will be a boon to the Sun Devils. Should Braxton falter, expect the staff to play either Kevin Kruger or Tron Smith often at the point guard position. Kruger should have a stabilizing affect to offensive flow and also present a strong perimeter threat. Smith would be a legitimate weapon at point guard, particularly when the Sun Devils play motion offense, as they likely will even more in the coming season.

In that half court offense, there is less reliance on ball handling and creation from the point guard, and more emphasis on a player simply capable of being an initiator, or putting the offense into motion. There's no doubt that Smith could handle such a role, and with his athleticism and shooting ability, he would make a deadly weapon at the point.

One can expect to see more of an emphasis on the inside-outside play with Diogu getting a lot of touches early to establish himself. Defenses that collapse on Diogu will suffer more in the future than in this past season because of the added shooting weaponry brought in by this staff to compliment the young star. When teams realize that leaving shooters like Kruger, Smith, Hill, Moore and Low is ill-advised, it will open up the floor for the Pac-10 freshman of the year, especially late in ball games and prove to be a difficult offense to deal with.

Defensively there should be little if any drop-off. Angounou was widely regarded as the best and most versatile defender on the team before his injury, capable of guarding four or even five positions on the court. Allen Morill isn't far behind him and both players can translate their strength to a dramatic advantage on the glass as well. Tron Smith is a physical freshman, with the skill and desire to be a strong defender along the perimeter. Keith Wooden should be able to use his extended wingspan and nice build in the post defensively alongside Diogu. Long, strong, and athletic, the Sun Devils should be even better on the defensive end next year.

Overall, there is quite a bit to look forward to over the off-season and into the future of Sun Devil basketball program. The 2003 recruits are all scheduled to be on campus and participating in pick up games and non-structured workouts by June. The 2004 recruiting is already well underway, and with three scholarships to give the staff will look at taking the program to a level unseen since the glory days of coach Wulk. While the team's achievements and future feats may surprise some, this staff believed all along that this was where the ASU program would be at with hard work, determination and perseverance. When those same qualities are expected of players in the Arizona State program, it's no wonder that all of the effort is starting to pay dividends.

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