Rising Sun

It is a warm autumn morning in Tempe, Arizona and yet a chill runs down your spine. Sitting in a college gymnasium at 9 a.m. on a Saturday you see more than 15 college and high school-aged young men are already wide-awake, pushing up and down a basketball court, including nearly every member of the Arizona State men's basketball program and a sprinkling of recruits.

In and of itself, this is a rather remarkable feat, considering this is an informal, voluntary pick-up game, but that is not what makes you shiver. No, it's not due to the number of men you see playing before you; it is a product of how many good kids you see. Good as in on-the-court good. Good as in off-the-court good. Good as in really good. Good as in gives you the chills good.

Rewind seven years. It is the 1996-97 season and Bill Frieder is in his eighth and final year as head coach of the Sun Devils. The team he coaches hardly has enough legitimate major conference talent to field a starting five. Two years prior this team was in the Sweet-16 of the NCAA Tournament. This year, Arizona State finishes 2-16 in conference play. But this isn't the worst of it.

Earlier in the year, three freshmen recruits were the targets of an on-campus investigation involving an alleged sexual assault with the aid of a ski mask. It resulted in suspensions and eventually transfers, though no criminal charges were ever filed. Another player was accused of stealing the property of a fellow student. These were just two of a handful of embarrassing incidents that brought shame to the program; a program that reportedly graduated zero players over a six-year span under Frieder. Still, it gets worse.

After then-Athletic Director Dr. Kevin White forced Frieder out in September of 1997, the Sun Devil program spiraled into a state of humiliation due to point-shaving allegations, literally among the worst charges that can be levied at an institution. Almost three months to the day after Frieder's forced resignation, Stevin "Headache" Smith and Isaac "Ice" Burton plead guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit sports bribery.

Dead program walking.

Fast-forward to Saturday, October 4, 2003. It is seven years post-Frieder. After taking a baseline seat in the second row your eyes first focus on Ike Diogu, a near-unanimous pre-season first-team All-American selection. Diogu is only a sophomore; in fact he is arguably the best sophomore in the nation. He plays for Arizona State University.

Wearing a bowflex t-shirt that tightly clings to his newly chiseled frame, Diogu seems like he could easily be the poster-boy for a new advertising campaign by the home-fitness titan. His muscles are "rocked up" and he is now more spry, athletic and springy than ever. He also is further refined, having added a deadly turnaround jump shot reminiscent of Charles Barkley in his prime.

Ike Diogu is a revelation at Arizona State. He is also a product of evolution at a program that ostensibly climbed out of a buried casket under the watchful eye of head coach Rob Evans. Seven months after Frieder's ouster in the fall of 1997, and immediately following an interim season in which Don Newman coached the team, Dr. White hired his close friend Evans away from Mississippi to heal a critically wounded program.

At the time, even Evans himself had no clue as to how much of a rebuilding job he had in front of him. Years later, he would remark that it was perhaps even a tougher job than he'd encountered even at Mississippi, a program that, prior to his arrival lingered at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference like an old boot on the ocean's floor.

As part of a deliberate and methodical five-year plan, Evans began his first year at Arizona State with the recruitment of marginal players, many of whom were considered to be projects, or worse. In doing so, he received significant flak over the performance of these players over the bulk of their subsequent respective careers.

But these student-athletes made up the moral foundation of a program, an intangible quality seemingly undervalued, or at the very least misjudged in terms of its importance, by some in the Sun Devil community.

These days, the progress of this basketball program is best appreciated by absence. Over a five-year period, culminating with the first NCAA-berth of the Rob Evans era at Arizona State, there were no allegations of impropriety, no criminal investigations, no academic casualties and indeed, no further shaming of the University.

The so-called marginal athletes brought in by Evans in the formative first year are all now either University graduates, or, at the very least, in the final stages of completing coursework toward their degrees.

Foundation set.

Now, as your eyes wander to the players surrounding Diogu on the court, one thing becomes immediately clear. Spry, athletic and spring are not adjectives that only apply to Diogu. Jamal Hill appears as though he spent the off-season installing trampolines in his high-tops. Allen Morill moves his 6-7 230-plus pound frame around the court with unbelievable grace; the best Sun Devil tight end on campus just might be this basketball player. Tron Smith elicits gasps with his hang-time, and praise for his versatility. Will Fameni has quick feet and a naturally strong body at 6-7, not to mention his non-stop high-revving motor. Perhaps the most dynamic natural athlete on the team, Serge Angounou, is only allowed to shoot hoops on a side-basket, still rehabilitating from a knee injury suffered a year ago.

Everywhere you look you see it. There is a depth and breadth of talent and athleticism in this program that is more impressive than at any other time in nearly a decade, since the Devils last went to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet-16 in 1995, and perhaps going further back than that.

The talent level before you is enough to make you think about the multiple pre-season magazines that have projected the Sun Devils will finish at or around eighth place in the Pac-10 conference. Interestingly, after the pick-up games have concluded -- at least for this day -- you notice that the players also are all too aware of what the media believes is in store for Arizona State this season.

Diogu, Angounou and Morill crowd around with other teammates, reading what the future supposedly has in store for them this season in one of the pre-season publications. As the three players move up into the tunnel they silently read, yet again, the prevailing sentiment expressed by the national media – Arizona State is a one-player wonder.

It is enough to make you wonder, but not about this basketball program. Rather, you wonder if that sentiment will be believed by the masses; the opponents? You wonder if the national pundits who've predicted an eighth place finish for the Sun Devils this season had seen what you had seen that Saturday morning, would they be the ones who'd have the chills.

And that makes you shiver anew because now you really are afraid. For them.

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