Arizona State fell to UTEP on Friday night, 66-65. Prior to that game, the Sun Devils had played twice, defeating Jackson State 79-48 and Delaware State 67-56, both games in Tempe AZ and Las Vegas Invitational Tournament games.
The Arizona State Sun Devils are coached by Rob Evans, who compiled a record of 90-89 in his previous six years in Tempe. Last year the Sun Devils had a record of 10-17, and 4-14 in the Pacific-Ten Conference. Evans played at New Mexico State back in the 1960s and was a defensive specialist on the court. He was an assistant coach at New Mexico State for seven years and at Texas Tech for fifteen years before becoming head coach at Mississippi in 1992, where he coached until 1998. His record at Mississippi was 86-81 (3-4 against Vanderbilt) and he succeeded in making the Rebels a consistent threat in the SEC for the first time. He has had a winning record only twice at Arizona State (19-13 in 1999-2000 and 20-12 in 2002-03).
The star for the Arizona State and a pre-season consensus All-American first teamer is junior Ike Diogu (6-8, 250 lbs). The powerful Diogu, from Garland, Tex., scored 22.8 ppg and averaged 8.9 rebounds. He is one of the most consistent players in the college ranks, scoring over twenty points seventeen times last season. He does it all, setting a Pac-10 all-time record for free throws (243 made, 81.5%), and can step out and knock down the three (37.8%). He scored 56 points in his first two games this season.
Every coach that goes up against Arizona State realizes that Diogu is the sort of player who will always play well. Therefore, the strategy usually will be to keep him from running wild, while holding down his teammates. Arizona State's chances for success this season hinge upon the work of the other players.
Point guard Jason Braxton, a 6-2 senior, averaged 4.8 assists per game last season, along with 7.1 ppg. He is not a big offensive threat, or outside shooter (making 26.7% of his threes), but he runs the team well and is a good defender. In the past he has played best when his minutes were not as great as the 29 per game of last season. His running mate is 6-2 sophomore Kevin Kruger (son of Lon Kruger, former head coach at Florida, now at UNLV), who came on strong in the last nine games of 2003-04. Kruger finished with 5.3 ppg, hitting 36.2% of his three-point attempts.
Playing on the other wing from Kruger is 6-4 senior Steve Moore (12.7 ppg). Although making only 32.4% of his outside shots last year, he requires serious defensive attention. He came in last year as a transfer and could become a more serious scoring threat now that he is familiar with Evans's system.
6-6 sophomore Bryson Krueger was a Vanderbilt recruit, but left without ever appearing in a game. He then played one season at Yavapai Community College (15.8 ppg) before transferring to Arizona State, where he has three years of eligibility. He may start instead of Kevin Kruger although scoring only eight points in his first two games. He can shoot from the outside or drive to the basket. Another transfer, 6-2 junior Tyrone Jackson, from Fresno City College, arrived with more fanfare than Krueger, but didn't play many minutes against Jackson State and Delaware State.
To a large extent, Arizona State's success this season may depend on 6-8 sophomore Serge Angounou, a 235-pounder. He was expected to be a star when State signed him, but had to take a red-shirt year because of a fractured kneecap and then missed the first eleven games last season, averaging only 3.8 points. He didn't do much in the first two games this season and may never come close to fulfilling his potential.
There are several other players who are likely to see action: 6-9 sophomore Keith Wooden (3.3 ppg), 6-7 junior Allen Morill (2.7 ppg), 6-7 freshman Tim Pierce, 6-7 sophomore Wilfried Fameni (4.2 ppg and a good defender), and 6-10 freshman Craig Austin. If Angounou is not able to recover his previous form, some of this group will need to make more substantial contributions than before.
Arizona State has one dominating star (Diogu), another established scoring threat (Moore), a decent point guard (Braxton), a couple of good prospects (Kruger and Krueger) and six question marks. For success this year the team will need to play improved defense. Their first two opponents were too weak to provide a good indication of how they will fare.
If Vanderbilt can hold Diogu to his usual twenty points or so, and keep Moore under control, the Commodores figure to win. They are much taller, more experienced, and already have the defensive stoppers that the Sun Devils would like to develop. Vanderbilt is picked here to win by ten to fifteen points even though Arizona State is the team that is much nearer home.