Arizona State Hoops Preview

Over the last few weeks DevilsDigest brought you a comprehensive breakdown of the upcoming 2003-2004 basketball season in the Pacific-10 conference. The tenth and last part of this multi-part series looks at the Arizona State Sun Devils

Arizona State Sun Devils (Tempe, Arizona)
2002-03 Record: 20-12 (11-7)
Postseason: NCAA
Returning Starters: 2
Head Coach: Rob Evans (sixth season)

Projected Starting Lineup: (Returning Starter(s) in BOLD)

PG: Jason Braxton, 6-2, 190 Jr. (4.6 ppg, 2.3 apg, .385 FG% .280 3PT% .477 FT%)
SG: Tron Smith, 6-2, 195 Fr. (Long Beach Press Telegram Best in the West First-Team)
SF: Steve Moore, 6-4, 190 Jr. (Consensus Top-10 National Junior College wing)
PF: Ike Diogu, 6-8, 250 So. (19.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg, .608 FG% .375 3PT% .735 FT%)
C : Keith Wooden, 6-9, 220 Fr. (McDonald's 100 Finalist)

Key Returning Reserves:

Serge Angounou, 6-8, 235 Fr. (Redshirted in 2002-03 after knee injury)
Allen Morill, 6-7, 235 So. (Partial Qualifier in 2002-03 – was able to practice but not play)
Jamal Hill, 6-5, 180 Sr. (6.3 ppg, .411 FG% .364 3PT% .759 FT%)
Kenny Crandall, 6-3, 195 Sr. (7.9 minutes per game in 2002-03)
Justin Allen, 6-8, 250 Sr. (4.8 minutes per game in 2002-03)

Key Losses:

Kyle Dodd (4.1 ppg, 3.2 apg)
Curtis Millage (15.9 ppg)
Tommy Smith (11.2 ppg, 6.2 rpg)
Shawn Redhage (8.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg)
Donnell Knight (5.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg)

Recruiting Class:

Steve Moore, 6-4, 200 Jr. (Eastern Oklahoma JC, Los Angeles CA)
Tron Smith, 6-2, 195 Fr. (Canyon Spring HS, Moreno Valley, CA)
Keith Wooden, 6-8, 225 Fr. (Free State HS, Lawrence, KS)
Wilfried Fameni, 6-8, 235 Fr. (Amelia Academy, Amelia, VA)
Chris Low, 6-8, 220 Fr. (Bishop K. Gorman HS, Tyler, TX)

Recruiting Class Grade: B+

Junior College transfer Steve Moore is a strong, well-rounded and versatile player capable of playing as many as three positions on the court, but ideally suited for the wing guard spot. He is an intelligent player, better than average on the defensive end and a nice left-handed shooter out to 20 feet. Moore will be in the running for the Pac-10 Non-Freshmen Newcomer Award.

Tron Smith is a physical, tough-nosed, athletic combo-guard with a sweet shot, ball skills that allow him the ability to create for himself and others, and seemingly enough spring to jump out of the gym. He plays with a fire and swagger displayed more prominently than most freshmen. Smith is a future star at the Pac-10 level, and an All-Freshman candidate in the conference this year.

Keith Wooden is arguably the recruit from the 2003 class with the most professional upside, though he arrived at Tempe somewhat unpolished. He's very long and skilled with the ability to play in the low post, high post, or out onto the floor. Wooden has All-Conference upside a year or two down the road, but for this season expect flashes of brilliance mixed with a generous sprinkling of play that frustrates the Sun Devil faithful.

Wilfried Fameni, a native of Cameroon, is capable of playing any of the three frontcourt positions. He's built sturdily and yet has quick, active feet, a non-stop motor and enough skill and athleticism to play out on the wing. Fameni should contribute immediately.

Chris Low is a sweet-shooting forward/center who, like Fameni and Wooden is multi-talented. He's tough underneath and on the glass and yet can pull his defender away from the basket with his great range. He is fighting for a place Rob Evans' rotation.

Team Overview:

The running joke as told by many fans of the University of Arizona ends with a punch-line mocking the battle cry often heard out of Tempe following yet another unsuccessful, unfulfilling basketball season. The payoff is usually something like, "wait ‘till next year," and is followed by sardonic laughter.

The time has come to wipe that smirk off your face, Wildcat fans. After a successful 20-win season that saw the Devils advance into the second round of the NCAA-Tournament for the first time since 1995, "next year" is now – and it's nothing to laugh at.

"Next year" arrived quietly, without much fanfare this past summer with reinforcements from a recruiting class arguably better than any at Arizona State in more than 25 years. It is a recruiting class designed to surround everybody's Pre-Season All-American, Ike Diogu, with enough offensive firepower and defensive versatility to push the Sun Devils toward their first back-to-back NCAA-Tournament Appearances since 1980-81.

The players who've got next are wings Tron Smith and Steve Moore, and forwards Keith Wooden, Wilfried Fameni and Chris Low. You may have never seen them play, and therefore do not expect much from them this year – at least if you're anything like the Pac-10 Media who pegged Arizona State to finish seventh. Then again, perhaps it's better this way.

Hungry, inspired teams are more often than not those that are overlooked, and that suits Rob Evans' Sun Devils perfectly, particularly when considering the program's leader, Diogu, is innately driven to the extreme to begin with. Almost unbelievably, Diogu was back in the gym the day after Arizona State lost to Kansas in the second-round of the NCAA-Tournament.

An off-season spent sculpting his body and working on his game with the Pan American National Team under Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has paid huge dividends for Diogu. He is far leaner, noticeably more bouncy and athletic and even further refined offensively.

Having to regularly guard the likes of Connecticut's Emeka Okafor and Missouri's Arthur Johnson -- two of the best post players in America -- on the Pan Am squad certainly made him better equipped to defend and rebound in the post this season against any and all comers.

Making Diogu's job easier in the post defensively is the addition of Keith Wooden, a player only slightly taller than Diogu but with a wingspan well in excess of 7 feet. He plays taller than he is and will, at times, be able to defend on the low block, allowing Diogu to guard power forwards out onto the floor.

Wooden also gives the Sun Devils a high-low post option offensively in which the two players are essentially interchangeable and both versatile enough to either play with a back to the basket or facing the hoop. A skilled athlete, Wooden is also a nice passer from the middle and that should help in the Arizona State zone and motion offenses.

One of the biggest differences from last year to this season will be the bench depth in the middle. Rob Evans will have a number of options at his disposal in this regard, with Allen Morill and Will Fameni seemingly destined for the most consistent minutes off the bench.

Morill, a former amateur boxer, is a physically imposing player who will do a lot of the grease-work for the Sun Devils. He can play in the post, defend a number of positions, rebound, and score, predominately from 15 feet and in. It is unlikely Morill will consistently put up big offensive numbers, but his true value generally won't show up in a box score.

The greater offensive threat off the bench will be Fameni, a player who can similarly defend a variety of positions, but will be a more diverse weapon than Morill with the basketball in his hands. He can create for himself off the dribble, shoot the ball out to the three-point line and yet he is also a workhorse on the glass.

Ironically, Fameni's Cameroon contemporary, Serge Angounou, has long been thought of as the most dynamic and versatile player on the entire roster. Last year he was on pace to capture the starting small forward spot as a true freshmen before being sidelined for the season with a knee injury that he has been slow to come back from.

In recent weeks Angounou has been cleared for all of the team's non-contact drills and it is likely that his involvement in full contact situations is less than a month away. The knee is structurally sound and Angounou is pain-free. Now all that is left is the final stages of building back the leg muscles surrounding the joint. Sources close to the program anticipate his return to the court by the start of conference play, conservatively.

While it is still unclear what type of impact Angounou will make upon his return to the team in the short-term, the long-view outlook is extremely bright. He is an extremely well put-together athlete, with great length and natural strength. Angounou matriculated to Arizona State as a player who could defend anyone on the court at any time, and handle the basketball like a guard, with the build of a power forward.

While the aforementioned players are those most likely to garner consistent minutes in Rob Evans' frontline rotation, two others, senior Justin Allen and freshman Chris Low, will vie for time in the lineup as well. Allen's forte has always been his long-range shooting, but this off-season he put on significant weight in order to be more effective defensively in the painted area. Low is also a player known for his jump shot, though he lacks Allen's size. Even so, he's a fierce competitor who works hard underneath and on the glass.

When either player substitutes in for Diogu or even Wooden, expect the Sun Devils to open up the floor via an open-post motion or continuity offense designed to pull defenders out onto the wing and open up lanes to drive to the basket. This is an offensive set the Devils used extremely effectively at times last season.

Regardless of the offensive scheme Arizona State is running, the triggerman will almost exclusively be junior point guard Jason Braxton. A year after being demoralized by losing his starting position to Kyle Dodd (now a student assistant) late in the season, Braxton is back, a year older and seemingly more mature.

He's always been an athlete capable of wowing crowds with his quickness and hops, but Braxton has been woefully ineffective in terms of shooting the basketball and leading the team with any consistency. He'll need to improve dramatically in both regards and many believe, based at least in part on his showings in the team's two exhibition games, he's done just that.

Should Braxton falter, expect redshirt-freshmen Kevin Kruger to siphon off a portion of his game minutes. Kruger is a more of steady, unspectacular player than Braxton, one who'll likely be very consistent in his ability to hit the open man with the fundamental pass in the half-court offense and bury wide-open looks from anywhere on the court.

Arizona State will likely open the season with a three-guard starting lineup, with wings Tron Smith and Steve Moore running on either side of Braxton. Despite being a true freshman, Smith comes to Arizona State quite familiar with Braxton, as the two were teammates and close friends for two years of high school. He's a tough, fearless player who shoots the ball with boundless confidence and his mid-range game and ability to get to the basket make him a potent offensive weapon.

Moore, a highly regarded junior college transfer, is a more complete player than Smith at this point. He's displayed an outstanding ability to rebound, defend, and see the floor and make the difficult pass. In addition to being a strong left-handed jump shooter, Moore is physically strong and willing to throw his body into the fray at either end. This is a characteristic not lost on Evans, who seems to be quite fond of the JUCO swingman.

First off the bench in the backcourt will be senior Jamal Hill, another wing guard known primarily as a long-range threat. Hill has added 15 pounds since last season in an effort to be able to more adequately defend bigger wings and stay strong on his way to the basket off the dribble. More than anything, his mental preparedness will be the primary determining factor in how much he plays this season.

In certain spot situations, expect Evans to call upon senior Kenny Crandall, a player who has been with the program as long as the coach himself. Crandall took a two-year LDS Church mission after his freshmen season and then later suffered a gruesome leg-injury in a dirt-bike accident over a year-and-a-half ago that he's still recovering from.

All things considered, this is an Arizona State team in which the sum is greater than its individual parts. Evans finally has the size, versatility and athleticism that he's recruited for since taking the job in Tempe. While the outgoing seniors had valuable experience that can only be replaced in time, the recruits that replace them are bigger, stronger, more athletic and more skilled.

Arizona State will be able to do a better job of hurting teams that pack the middle defensively around Ike Diogu with more consistent perimeter shooting. There will be more consistency on the backboard and in the defensive interior. And there is greater flexibility in the ways the players can be utilized in the rotation.

Interesting Factoids:

-The Sun Devils replace more players on their roster than any other team in the Pac-10…Ike Diogu is a Pre-Season Associated Press All-American, a Wooden Award Candidate and a Naismith Award Candidate…Diogu made more free throws last season than any other player attempted in the Pac-10…ASU will attempt to achieve back-to-back appearances in the NCAA-Tournament for the first time since 1980-81, a time when Kenny Crandall was the only current Sun Devil that had been born…Arizona State was picked to finish seventh in the Pac-10 media poll…Diogu was one of only three Pac-10 players to play in the Pan Am Games this summer, along with Stanford's Josh Childress and Oregon's Luke Jackson…Diogu was the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year.

Best Case Scenario:

Jason Braxton has always been an extremely impressive natural athlete, but now, a year older and wiser, he becomes the floor general that this team needs, as well as a passable threat to make open jump shots and free throws down the stretch. The younger frontcourt players are actually bigger and stronger than their predecessors leaving the team in good shape defensively and on the glass in the interior. Perimeter additions Steve Moore and Tron Smith combine with Jamal Hill to stretch defenses and protect Ike Diogu in the middle. Arizona State challenges for a top-tier conference finish and a strong NCAA-Tournament seeding.

Worst Case Scenario:

Point guard play becomes iffy in the absence of Kyle Dodd and his amazing 5-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and ball-hawkish defense. Glut of newcomers causes problems with continuity and chemistry. Lack of experience leads to a mediocre, spotty showing on the road throughout the season, and in close games where there is an understandable premium put on veteran, savvy play. Ike Diogu becomes the one-man team that some in the media expect but few close to the program anticipate, and the Devils stumble to duplicate last year's NCAA showing, falling to the NIT.


The Sun Devils have the best player in the Pac-10 in Ike Diogu and a team seemingly better suited to surround him effectively this year than in 2002-03. The team should shoot the ball a little better from the perimeter and, as a result, keep teams a little more honest defensively. Interior additions are bigger and stronger than the outgoing seniors they replace, and better suited to rebound and defend. The sheer number of newcomers expected to contribute will undoubtedly lead to some growing pains, but this squad should be at its best when it really matters – in March. The question is, by that point, will the Devils have done enough to gain re-admittance into the "Big Dance"? We think it is likely.

Pac-10 Prediction: 10-8
Postseason Play: NCAA

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