Are the Sun Devils Down for the Count?

In the twelfth round of the fight Arizona State failed to answer the bell and the 2003-04 season was prematurely declared over by technical knockout.

At least according to this judge it was.

Baring an improbable Pac-10 Tournament Championship in March, Arizona State fans can, at best, hope for a shot at seeing their team in the National Invitational Tournament. Any legitimate NCAA-Tournament dreams ended on Saturday.

Then again, there is the very real possibility that this team might not even make it into the Pac-10 Tournament; even an outside chance it could finish the season with a losing record.

Consider the fact that the each of the last six times Arizona State has failed to win its Holiday Tournament, dating back to the 1986-87 campaign, it went on to finish no better than .500% on the season.

Currently sitting at an even 6-6 on the season with three home games out of the way and a 0-3 record in conference play, Arizona State has fifteen regular season games remaining, with nine of those on the road. In at least 7 of those road games the Sun Devils will likely be an underdog.

Consider that on the season, Arizona State is 1-11 against the point spread.

If you're still one of the hungry fans holding out hope that this team will reel off a string of victories, it's time to bring the line out of the water and head to Red Lobster. You're not going to catch anything on this pond.

Not this year.

Like a fruitless fishing adventure, Arizona State has frustrated and fatigued its customers. On television it appeared that there were a lot fewer bodies in the stands at Wells Fargo Arena on Saturday and really, who could blame those ticket holders that did not show up.

Following a successful 20-win campaign that saw a senior-laden team make it to the second round of the NCAA-Tournament hopes for the 2003-04 season where quite high.

The Sun Devils had one of the best players in the nation returning to the program in Ike Diogu and a full assortment of highly esteemed recruits waiting in the wings.

These recruits were considered by the Arizona State coaching staff to be upgrades over the seniors they replaced. In fact, Sun Devil coach Rob Evans went on record after the signing of these players in November of 2002, saying that the team was able to land every player that wanted.

"We are excited that we could sign these four student-athletes to commit to ASU, as they are the top four players we targeted at the beginning of the recruiting period," Evans said at the time in an Arizona State press release. "We love their versatility and their character."

Tron Smith was expected to be an immediate contributor at guard and while he did begin the season as a starter, he struggled mightily until suffering a broken nose in practice several weeks ago. On the season he is shooting .311% from the field and .111% from three-point range.

It was believed that Keith Wooden and Wilfried Fameni would bolster the frontcourt rotation and quickly make Sun Devil fans forget players like Tommy Smith and Donnell Knight. However, neither player has managed to string together even two successful games and in fact, Wooden is hardly even a fringe member of the rotation at this point.

Additionally, sophomore forward Allen Morill was considered by the staff to be an improved version of former Sun Devil Awvee Storey. Morill reportedly gave Diogu fits in practice last year as he sat out the season as a Partial Qualifier and he was considered by his teammates to be the Sun Devil most likely to surprise the Pac-10 this season. Against Cal however, Morill failed to score, or even collect a rebound.

When it was announced that the Pac-10 media had picked Arizona State to finish seventh and most national pre-season previews has slotted the team anywhere from fifth to eighth, the coaching staff scoffed. It was almost as though they felt personally offended.

Behind the scenes, numerous sources associated with the program, including coaches, players and others privately commented that they were confident Arizona State would be at least as good as it was last year and perhaps even better.

But now it's the fans that are personally offended.

Additionally, there are almost as many questions swirling around the program, as there are empty seats in Wells Fargo Arena.

What in the world is going on?

Certainly the prolonged absence of Serge Angounou hurt the Sun Devils, but at the same time how much can one player's absence ultimately be blamed for the struggles of a program, particularly when the player had never even played a college game up until two weeks ago.

At the end of the day, this program is faced with an either/or proposition as the primary cause of its troubles. Either the coaching staff has made mistakes in the recruiting process and subsequent signing of athletes or, if not, the coaching staff is not adequately preparing its players for game situations; or some combination of the two.

There can be no other alternative answer to the problems now plaguing Arizona State. None.

Certainly this is a program that has had more than its share of unfortunate illnesses, accidents and happenstance. From Justin Allen's Hodgkin's nightmare to Chris Osborne's wrist injury and car wreck to Kenny Crandall's dirt-bike accident, Serge Angounou's devastating knee injury and Tron Smith's broken nose, Arizona State has been snake-bit in recent years.

But that's no excuse.

Already, today's version of college basketball is perpetually an exercise in transition and migration. The best players are only in school for a year or two at most -- if they even attend college at all -- and the average Division-one roster is in constant flux to the tune of 25-35% annually.

As such, no coaching staff has the luxury of continuously building towards successful senior-laden teams' one out of every three or even four years, especially when those veteran teams rarely ever come to fruition.

Rather, winning programs are led by head coaches with established systems that work wherever and whenever. For these programs, recruiting is essentially about finding players that fill very specific needs. There is a clear and extremely focused agenda with recruiting and it is pursued until the needs of the system are met.

If there is any doubt that the system itself is the most important element of a coaching staff, look no further than this year in the Pac-10, following off-season changes at several conference member institutions.

Washington State hired Dick Bennett, a coach whose entire system is predicated on a slow-down mentality offense that is highly structured and regimented. The Cougars made few personnel moves in the off-season and yet they currently sit at 2-2 in league play.

Last season, Washington State won 2 conference games in the entire season.

At UCLA, new coach Ben Howland's system requires tremendous defensive effort and intensity and a motion offense that provides shooters with wide open looks at the basket.

The Bruins are undefeated at 4-0 in Pac-10 play with one real star addition -- Trevor Ariza. Howland also lost three of the top five players from last year's Bruin squad (Jason Kapono, Ray Young, Andre Patterson), which didn't win its fourth league game of the year until February 27.

These are just two examples of how a coaching staff with a rigorous and dependable system can maximize potential and win with regularity, even often times with lesser talent than opponents.

In the Rob Evans era there really has been no discernable system that the program has been predicated on. If there is one fatal flaw afflicting Arizona State basketball and keeping it from sustaining success, this is it.

Originally Evans said that he would bring a level of defensive toughness and intensity not seen in the Pac-10 in recent memory. As of yet however, this has not materialized.

Offensively the Sun Devils have never played the part of a team that executed particularly well or even looked like a unit that had a complete and total grasp of what it was trying to accomplish; at least not on a regular or even semi-regular basis.

This year, with all of the new additions to the program, it has been especially noticeable. You rarely see players set up via picks, screens or off-ball movement for open spot-up jump shots. Most made baskets are either self-generated or converted on fast break attempts.

Arizona State has been woefully inept at getting the ball into pre-season Associate Press All-American Ike Diogu's hands anywhere near the paint, or even demonstrated a concerted effort to do so, and that is entirely unacceptable.

We've witnessed a program that generally beats teams it is much better than and loses to teams it faces as an underdog. In six plus years at the helm, Evans's program is 5-44 against teams ranked in the Sagarin national Top-30.

There used to be a time when I'd wonder how a Lute Olson or Mike Montgomery would do with the recruits that Arizona State has brought in over the past six years or so.

Now however, I find my mind increasingly bombarded with thoughts of whether or not the same players would see more success were they to be coached by a Howland or a Bennett or a Ben Braun or an Ernie Kent or any number of non-Pac-10 coaches.

And that bothers me because nobody has been a bigger supporter of Rob Evans and his staff. They have pulled the Arizona State program out from scandal and turmoil and done so in a way that anyone would respect and admire.

Evans is a hard worker, a tough competitor, a fighter as he likes to put it. When his players don't perform up to his liking he generally harks back to the concept of them needing to do more work, to provide more effort, to summon more energy.

To fight harder.

And that is all well and good. It is rather self-evident that having players who are willing to lay it all out on the line and give a maximum effort on a regular basis is a pre-requisite of a high-quality program. Still, there is a foundation that must come before the fight; something which allows his players' a "fighter's chance." It is something that only he has the power to implement.

Call it a blueprint if you will, or call it a system. Call it whatever you wish, but make the call quickly.

Otherwise we may eventually see Rob Evans in a real fight.

For his job.

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