Season Wrap Up with Coach Rob Evans

Following the best season in Rob Evans' era at ASU, DevilsDigest sat down with the Sun Devils' basketball head coach to review the year that was, and look forward to what could be another stellar basketball season.

DevilsDigest: Coach, the 2002-03 season was your most successful one at ASU. How would you assess what took place this year?

Rob Evans: "It was a lot of fun for me. Early on, I felt that the kids were putting a tremendous amount of pressure on themselves because they felt they needed to get to the tournament. I tried my best to take that pressure off, but still keep them focused on the task. The biggest thing is that we had guys that had experience, and were committed to getting things done. Curtis Millage, Kyle Dodd, and you can go down the line…we knew our schedule was gonna be tough early on. I wanted it tough so we can put these guys to the test early, and see how we'll match up in the Pac-10."

"Some guys really stepped up for us. I think Curtis Millage had a fabulous year. Tommy Smith was a guy that played some huge games for us. Kyle Dodd and Shawn Redhage were steady, and of course Ike Diogu. What can you say there? We knew the kid was going to be a good player. But none of us had any idea how steady he was gonna be. I kept looking for a one bad ball game, and every night he scores in double digits. He has maturity beyond his years. The fact we had an experienced team allowed Ike to flourish. There was no jealousy that one guy was coming in and getting all the accolades. These guys were very team oriented, and that helped us."

DD: The team's high RPI rating (35) was probably one of the biggest factors that helped ASU get to the NCAA tournament. Was the RPI factor in selecting the field of 65 another reason that compelled you to have a quality schedule this year?

RE: "Yes it was. I didn't want our strength of schedule to be an issue. In the Nike camp in Indianapolis last year, all the coaches were invited to hear someone from the NCAA committee speak. This person was going to talk about how they make the selections, the seeding, and some other issues. A tremendous amount of coaches didn't stay for this speaker, but I stayed, Eddie Sutton stayed, Roy Williams stayed…I sat there because I wanted to know what they were looking for. Everything they were looking for – is what we did. I told my staff we need to win the games we scheduled and not have any bad losses. If we lose that overtime game in Washington – that's a bad loss. We had some good wins against Purdue and Utah. The game against (Division II) Chaminade doesn't count against you, because we didn't schedule it. Our RPI was higher than Oregon, Cal, and a lot of other teams that were in the tournament. We took care of our end of the bargain, and I felt comfortable going into selection Sunday. The RPI was always in the back of my mind."

DD: When you look at the turnaround the team had experienced from the 2001-02 season to this past year, what are the main reasons for it?

RE: "Our kids have been through a lot of adversity and were prepared to deal with whatever we had to deal with. These guys had no reference point. There was nobody here that had left anything for them. We only had Eddie House for two years, and he was alone. Most of these guys came up the hard way, and knew how hard they had to work. They knew the sacrifices they had to make, and they knew what I was going and not going to tolerate. These players just knew the lay of the land."

DD: Thinking back to the first practice of the season back in October – did you have a sense right there and then that this season was going to turn out the way it did?

RE: "I did, but I felt that way with all the pieces in place. I knew we needed Serge (Angounou) because we were a little thin in his position physically, and he could guard a lot of different people. When we lost him (to injury) I knew we would have to do it by committee, and some folks would have to raise their level of play and it happened. Donnell Knight had some good games for us, and when he started struggling Shawn Redhage was right there. Then we had all those issues with Curtis, and that was disconcerning. But I felt that we had good enough a team, with enough experience, that could play anybody anywhere in our league. In the past, I didn't feel that we had enough where we would have a good ball game and beat good teams. We had to have an outstanding ball game like we did against Arizona last year to compete. We got 19 wins a couple of years ago, and we were gonna play Stanford and Cal here. I didn't feel comfortable because I knew we had to play outstanding to win, and we didn't have enough firepower to do that. This year we had the firepower."

DD: You mentioned Dodd and Redhage and their emergence as reasons that contributed to this successful season. When you look back, can you put your finger on why and how they were able to become a factor?

RE: "Those two guys are probably the most committed guys I had on my team for the last four years. It's kinda interesting, because the decision to put them in the starting lineup – I made myself without talking to my staff about it. Looking and trying to do everything we can to make it to the tournament, I just made the decision that we were gonna change the lineup. I did it on the road against Cal and Stanford, knowing that these were two tough assignments and we may or may not win those games. But I knew we had some games at home we had to win, and we had to make the change right now to get more firepower and stability. I knew those guys were experienced, and coming down the stretch in pressure games I knew they would know how to handle the pressure."

DD: The flip side of this lineup change was benching Jason Braxton who had a pretty disappointing season. What do you attribute his performance to?

RE: "A lot of it was the fact that he worked so hard in the off-season on his shooting to keep his defenders honest. When you do that you want immediate results, and when you don't see those, and usually you won't see any immediate results, it put a lot of pressure on himself. It got him out of his box being the point guard and leader that distributes the basketball, because he was trying to show people that he can score. The whole thing was very frustrating to him. I tried to take some pressure off him and bench him, but that frustrated him more. Once he started accepting his role the last 3-4 games he started to play well again. I fully expect him to have a good year next year."

DD: Speaking of the off-season workouts, will Ike Diogu be doing anything special this summer like attending big man camps?

RE: "I think he's gonna be really busy on a national team. He will be one of the guys trying out in Colorado Springs at the end of May for the Pan-Am games. I fully expect him to make that team. He'll be busy with that, summer school, and working on some other aspects of his game."

DD: Some say that Diogu is better suited to play the power forward position. Do you see yourself able to do this with the expected arrival of Keith Wooden?

RE: "Yes I do. That's going to be huge. It allows us to play Ike at both positions. Keith is versatile enough to move him inside and outside, and we can do the same thing with Ike. That allows Ike to expand his game, which we did a little bit at the end of the season – putting the ball on the floor and shooting from the outside. We'll continue to expand his game. We didn't want to give him a crash course this year and overwhelm him. Power forward is where his growth will come, but he's so tough on the block that it would be foolish to totally take him away from that."

DD: Looking at your incoming recruiting class, it's pretty evident that most of them are skilled shooters. Was this done in mind to compliment Diogu's game? How will it change your offense?

RE: "Absolutely. We have to take pressure off of him, and have guys that can knock down shots. Serge would have done that this year. Kevin Kruger, Chris Low, Tron Smith…all of them can shoot the basketball and make guys play you honest. That was probably a shortcoming for us, but will be a strength next year. With these players we'll be able to continue and play the motion offense, and also have some set plays because we'll have mismatches with guys like Serge and Allen (Morrill). We'll also be able to bring Ike outside more. I like the motion offense because it's hard to defend. It's full spread, and it allows guys to attack off the dribble. It's a difficult offense to teach, but once you teach it it's a difficult offense to guard."

DD: The open post offense is a scheme that worked very well for you late in the season. Do you anticipate using it more next year?

RE: "I like to do that when you have guys that are skilled enough to do that, and certainly Ike is skilled enough. We can take advantage of bringing different people to the post from the perimeter. So, we'll run open post, single post, and maybe even double post with Ike and Keith. I like versatility in my players. I want guys that can play more than one position. When you have that you have more players than you think you have. If I got a guy like Serge that can play shooting guard, both forward position, and even center that means I have four players. Allen can play the same positions too. I can see us next year at any point having Ike, Keith, Allen, Serge, and Jason Braxton. Now you're talking about having players that are 6-2, 6-8, 6-7, 6-9, 6-8. These guys are athletic, they can defend, they can run the floor, score on the perimeter, and score inside. That's a bad matchup for teams."

DD: What can tell us about the recruits that are coming in next year and their impact on the team?

RE: "Chris Low brings versatility because he can shoot from deep, run the floor, and he's a 6-9 small forward that will have a 6-5 guy guarding him. Will Fameni is an unbelievable rebounder. He can score and do a lot of different things. Tron Smith will be one of the better defenders on our team. Strong, athletic, and can shoot the ball pretty well. He can play either guard position. Keith Wooden can play power forward and center. He has a nice stroke from the perimeter, and a nice post up game. All he lacks is experience, and we expect him to get that in non-conference play."

DD: Speaking of the non-conference schedule, can you share with us who ASU's opponents may be next season?

RE: "We're on the road at Nebraska and Northwestern. In our holiday tournament we have Texas A&M, San Diego, and Western Michigan. We're gonna play someone at America West Arena, hopefully Tennessee. We have three more games to schedule besides that."

DD: Granted Ike Digou is a great cornerstone to have, but next season he and Jason Braxton will be the only players coming back with significant experience on the team. Does the lack of experience on next season's roster create some apprehension about your chances of success?

RE: "It's a legitimate problem, but I don't have any apprehension. There are a lot of unknowns but that's the way it is every year. We think those guys are good enough, if they come along like we want them to, and their work ethic is good enough - then we feel very good about our basketball team. The job of the coach is to help the kids that come in to mature, get better, and mesh with each other. We feel very good about where the program is. I think myself, and anybody else, would love to have Ike Diogu as a cornerstone (smile)."

DD: Speaking of those new players, do you expect them to come in early in the summer? Are the veteran players going to play an active role in helping them to acclimate to Tempe?

RE: "Most of them will be here in the summer to be in the weight room, play ball with each other, and adjust to college life. It's gonna be an important summer for them. Each of our veteran players brings something else to the table, but they're huge in the scheme of things because we have so many young kids. Brandon Goldman already talked to me and told me what he has planned for the new guys. He has bios on them, knows what they have to work on…he's an amazing kid."

DD: This past season, more than any other year since you've been here, you repeatedly talked about the great fan support at home games. Looking back, are there a couple examples of this support that really stick out in your mind and that were never present in the previous years at ASU?

RE: "You take the Arizona game for example. We always knew it was a huge game, but this year the students were already lining up at 4PM (three hours before tip-off) getting ready to get into the game…It was so loud in there at the Oregon game. I generally don't hear crowds, but I could certainly hear that crowd. During our Christmas tournament, a lot of fans went to the Holiday Bowl. But they hustled back the next day to see us play. It would be nice for them to stay an extra day in San Diego but they chose not to. Just like it was at Mississippi, folks would stop me around town and start talking more about ASU basketball. People have been telling me ever since the season was over that they can't wait until the next season starts. I can because I need the break (smile), but it's nice that they are all excited."

DD: Lastly, the expectations bar has certainly been raised for next year. What are your thoughts on the 2003-04 season?

RE: "My expectations are always the same. Our goals are always to get to the big dance and win some championships. Those are the long-term goals. I expect these guys to get better every day, and every basketball game. Those are our short-term goals. If we do that, everything else will take care of itself."

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