ASU at the Midway Point

Play in the Pac-10 has reached the halfway point with every team having completed nine conference games. Here's a look at how things have gone thus far for Arizona State and also what to look for in the final month leading up to the Pac-10 Tournament and post-season play.

Arizona State men's basketball has had its fair share of ups and downs in the past 10 months since the end of the 2001-02 campaign. In the off-season junior Kenny Crandall suffered a severe compound fracture injury to his lower leg in a dirt bike accident. Senior Chris Osborne was in a single car accident in which the vehicle he was traveling as a passenger, flipped numerous times. The NCAA denied incoming freshmen Allen Morill's eligibility appeal, and fellow freshmen recruit Serge Angounou suffered a knee injury in an early exhibition game that required season-ending surgery. Most dramatically, senior guard and team leader Curtis Millage faced potential ineligibility on an academic technicality that was no fault of his own. He missed the team's first two games in the Maui Invitational tournament before flying in the day before the team's final game in the tournament and leading the charge to an overtime victory against Utah.

Upon return from Maui, the Sun Devils beat Lafayette, before losing to BYU at home and Utah on the road. From there the team won 5 straight including the Hoops Classic Championship before losing at Oregon, a game in which Arizona State was leading in the second half only to be blown out by the Ducks. The Sun Devils then destroyed Washington and Washington State at home and beat UCLA on the road for the second year in a row before losing a heartbreaker in the last minute at USC. A poorly played eight point loss in Tucson and a recent home split with Cal and Stanford has the team sitting at 13-7 overall and 5th in league play at 5-4.

The Sun Devils have benefited greatly from a solid schedule and despite a modest record, the team is ranked 29th in the RPI with a Strength of Schedule ranking solidly in the top 10 nationally. With nine conference games left it would appear that 6 wins would put the Sun Devil, at 11-7 in the Pac-10, into the NCAA tournament field. Should the team win only 5 of the remaining 9 it would likely fall somewhere in the proverbial bubble.

Leading the way all season long for the Sun Devils has been freshman sensation Ike Diogu, a player who has already locked up the freshman of the year award in the Pac-10 and will almost certainly be named to the all-conference team. Diogu has done the unthinkable, replacing last year's team MVP Chad Prewitt with even more productivity. Diogu is averaging 18.1 points and 7.1 rebounds on the season compared to Prewitt's 17 points and 7.3 rebounds. Diogu also has 19 blocked shots on the year, compared with Prewitt's 12 in all of last year.

Perhaps the greatest part of Diogu's game is his ability to command so much attention from opposing defenses. Teams like Oregon State, USC, Arizona and Stanford have gone to straight zones, or matchup zones to defend him. These zones allow for a tremendous opportunity for Diogu's teammates to get open looks at the basket and space to operate. When opposing teams do play man to man defense, they generally double or even triple team Diogu every time he touches the ball in the post and because of this he shoots more free throws, by far, than any other player in the Pac-10. He is averaging nearly 9 attempts per game from the line on the season and is shooting a very respectable 73% on the year.

Diogu is well on his way to breaking freshmen records at Arizona State for total points, scoring average, total rebounds, and rebound average, and he's already broken the free throw attempts and free throws made records. Quite simply, he should go down in history as one of the greatest players to ever wear a Sun Devil uniform. To be sure, Diogu will completely re-write the record books at ASU baring injury or early departure to the NBA.

The other players on the team have seemingly adjusted to the fact that Diogu is their leader and each is trying to find a comfortable niche to compliment the young star. Curtis Millage, the player coaches tapped as the best player on the team struggled early adjusting to a new role and perhaps even more so due to the academic situation that had him at one point considering giving up and moving home to Los Angeles to help support his mother and siblings. He struggled with his shot early in the year, and the lanes that he used to utilize in an effort to drive the hoops are no longer there at times because of Diogu and the increased effort of defenses to clog the painted area around the young star.

Nevertheless, Millage been playing much better of late, and has boosted his conference average to 15.9 points. He's also shooting the three point shot much better in Pac-10 play, at 40%. Unfortunately, Millage is the only Sun Devil who has consistently shot the ball well from long range in conference play thus far and also shown the ability or willingness play well on the defensive end.

This lack of shooters has really hurt the Devils this year and is the primary reason the team is 5-4 in league play as opposed to 7-2 or even better. Point guard has been a primary position of concern on the offensive end with sophomore Jason Braxton mired in a slump that has seemingly lasted all season. Braxton is an elite athlete, among the best in the conference, but he has struggled mightily translating his athleticism into court production and floor leadership. Opposing teams have taken to sagging of Braxton due to his poor shooting percentage from the field, 36%, and especially from the three-point line where he is 3-16 on the season.

The inability to shoot the ball has led to a domino effect in which he can't penetrate because his defenders generally allow him a wide buffer zone. Absent the ability to shoot or break down defenses of the dribble, Braxton has really become a liability on offense. The greater problem however is that his most common substitute, Kyle Dodd also is not much of a threat to shoot the ball from long range and he's a step down from Braxton defensively.

The Devils would like to play Millage more at the point guard position, and in fact did so against Cal in an effort to combat the Bears' bigger wings. The problem with this has been the regression seen in the offensive play of junior college transfer Jamal Hill. A great shooter, Hill has struggled of late with his touch and defensively he's just not getting the job done either. Kenny Crandall can play the shooting guard a little bit, and he has a great stroke from distance, but laterally he's always been a bit slow and now with the leg injury, he's not completely back to full speed. So when Millage is at the point guard, it's a big step down to whoever replaces him at shooting guard. The best possible scenario would involve Hill stepping his play back up to where it was early in the season or even beyond.

At small forward, the loss of Angounou was expected to be create a big problem for the Devils on the defensive end, but senior Donnell Knight has stepped his game up considerable and is playing better and more consistently than at any point in his Sun Devil career. More than any other player on the team, Knight has settled in to the niche created by the emergence of Diogu. He hits the glass hard from the weak side, is the best defender on the team, important because of all the great talent in the Pac-10 at the small forward position, and he has very recently begun to add a better looking jump shot into his arsenal.

The player on the team who has arguably provided ASU fans with the most frustration over the course of his career has been Tommy Smith, if only for the seemingly endless amount of potential he possesses. Smith's early troubles have been well documented from the foul trouble to the costly and frequent turnovers and the mental breakdowns defensively. While Smith has made a great deal of headway in these areas and is also leading the Pac-10 in blocked shots this year, in an alarming turn of events he is quite possibly shooting the basketball worse than at any point in his career. His shooting percentage has steadily decreased over the past two seasons from well over 55% as a sophomore to 41% in Pac-10 play this year.

Another frustrating aspect of Smith's game involves the amount of time he spends on the perimeter with ball in hand, and yet despite showing good "triple threat" form, an unwillingness to shoot the basketball. For those unfamiliar with the language, "triple threat" position refers to a body and ball position that allows for the option to shoot, pass or dribble. Smith does a great job of getting into "triple threat" position, but opposing team know his unwillingness to shoot the deep ball and thus don't close out on him and Smith is subsequently unable to put the ball on the floor and get to the basket. A few more long-range jumpers would open up the floor quite a bit for Smith, as well as his teammates.

Off the bench for the team, the player who has done the most consistent job has been senior Shawn Redhage, who appears to have grown an inch or so and added some weight as well. Time spend in Spain over the summer really did wonders for his game and Redhage has shown himself to be more fluid and explosive off the floor this year. He's also expanded range on his jump shot and now has legitimate range out to about 18 feet. With his versatility and intensity Redhage has worked himself into the post rotation, leaving players like Chris Osborne and Justin Allen on the bench for the most part.

But Osborne and Allen may be needed for depth purposes in the important stretch run that will require the Devils to have a winning record, at the very least, in their remaining nine regular season games if they have aspiration of an at-large NCAA tournament selection. It may take six wins to take the Devils off the proverbial bubble, and with games at Washington, Washington State, Cal, and Stanford and at home versus Arizona, Oregon, Oregon State, USC and UCLA, every game from here on out is critical.

The Devils are going to need to get improved play from the point guard position and outside shooting to counteract the zone defenses that the team is likely to face for the rest of the season. While ASU leads the Pac-10 in field goal percentage, the squad is last in three point shooting in league play and the Devils will be fed a steady diet of zone defenses designed to contain Diogu and clog the painted area with as many bodies as possible. The Devils have a legitimate shot at making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995, but it's a shot they'll likely have to make from afar.

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