By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Sometime soon, a marked man named Ike Diogu will make a momentous decision -- whether to stick around Arizona State University for his senior season or set sail for the National Basketball Association.
The Pac-10's Player of the Year would be a probable first-round selection in the upcoming NBA draft if he declared his intention to leave school. How high he'd land depends on who's doing the predicting.
The 30 first-rounders each are guaranteed millions of dollars, whether they actually produce as professionals or not. That kind of money seems almost surreal to Diogu, the 21-year-old son of Dallas schoolteachers who doesn't even own a car.
But some scouting reports speak of Diogu's alleged lack of lateral foot speed, which translates into not enough explosiveness to the hoop. They wonder if his lack of stature (he's a bit smaller than the 6 feet, 8 inches the media guides claim) will hurt him on the professional level.
On the positive side, pro scouts tell New Times that Diogu excels in several critical areas: He has a keen ability to draw fouls and block shots, has superior body control, and he's extremely coachable.
Says the Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy, "Oh my goodness, is he terrific! Diogu is listed as 6-8, which is why the NBA always has viewed him skeptically as a prospect and why, whenever he enters the draft, he'll be around later than he should be and will commence making some general manager appear brilliant. Well, it doesn't require any particular genius to see Diogu's greatness. Just spend two hours in the gym with him."
And Grant Wahl, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, comments, "Ike is one of the most intriguing cases in college basketball. What kind of NBA player will he be? Is he too short [for the positions he plays]? Still, anyone who follows the game considers him one of the top college players, a probable first-team All-American and a chance to be national player of the year. But it's a mystery why the rest of the team hasn't ridden his coattails to a much better season than they've had. It's all been kind of reminiscent, unfortunately, of a great NBA player on a bad NBA team."
Some NBA pundits compare him to Malik Rose, now with the New York Knicks after spending years with the San Antonio Spurs. The rugged Rose hardly is a superstar, but he's a solid professional working under a multi-year contract totaling $25 million.
Diogu might well be much better than that, though. A respected scout says Diogu could develop into an Elton Brand, or even a Charles Barkley -- that is, an "undersized" (height-wise, for the center/power forward positions) beast of the backboards eager to rumble with players inches taller than he. To boot, he's got a nasty midrange jump shot.
All of Diogu's positives came to the fore on March 5 during a breathtaking 70-68 loss to 8th-ranked Arizona in Tempe.
He scored 25 points, including two three-pointers, and played ferocious defense, despite having four fouls for most of the second half.
To those who don't follow such things, Ike Diogu has been the most recognizable, popular and compelling major-college athlete in the Valley since he arrived in Tempe as a relatively unheralded freshman in August 2002.
But until last week, most people inside and outside ASU's men's basketball program expected Diogu to call it a college career after this season ends.
After all, went the conventional wisdom, what more could the guy prove at this level?
This season, Ike Diogu led the Pacific-10 conference in points (22-plus a game), rebounds, blocked shots, minutes played, and free throws attempted and made. He's also second in the Pac-10 in field-goal percentage and ninth in free-throw percentage.
Remarkably, Diogu also has continued his streak of scoring in double figures in every one of the 89 games he's played at ASU.
And he's done all of this despite having more bodies hanging on him than a Chippendale dancer at a girls' night out. Just about every opponent this season has double- or triple-teamed him, often with considerably taller players.
USC was the league's worst team this year, but the Trojans twice beat the Sun Devils by employing a run-everyone-at-Ike defense that worked largely because his wide-open teammates failed to pick up the slack.
Yet ASU twice was able to beat third-place Stanford, after Cardinal coach Trent Johnson oddly decided to treat Diogu like a normal player. In Tempe, that resulted in a memorable 39-point, 11-rebound effort. However, the rest of the team converted only eight field goals in 28 attempts.
Overall, ASU has done better in Pac-10 play than the last-place slot the media had predicted for the team last November. But have the Sun Devils truly overachieved? A bid to the NCAA tournament that seemed a strong possibility after a 13-2 start to the season has all but vanished.
The day this story hits the streets, March 10, ASU will face the formidable Washington Huskies in a first-round game of the Pac-10 tournament in Los Angeles. The Devils are heavy underdogs, having already lost twice to the Huskies.
The only way the team will earn a coveted spot in the 65-team national tournament will be to take the league tournament by winning three games in three days. Most observers agree that the odds of that are slim.