By Amy Silverman
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After the Pac-10 tournament, ASU probably will compete in the National Invitational Tournament, a 32-team event for second-rung teams whose dreams of dancing into March Madness cruelly have been cast aside.
It does seem ludicrous that, short of a tiny sports miracle, the magnificent Diogu will have played in only one NCAA tournament in three years at ASU. That one time was as a precocious freshman in the winning 2002-2003 season that now seems long, long ago.
As this year's team fell on hard times, the whispers about ASU coach Rob Evans' immediate future with the program rose to shouts.
Recently, most local sports columnists, Internet chatters and radio talk-show hosts have been calling for Evans' scalp.
They've done so mostly because the Devils have made it to the promised land of the NCAA tourney just once in the coach's seven years on the job.
ASU play-by-play man Tim Healey referred to the team's naysayers as a "legion of doubters" during a recent broadcast.
No doubt, Evans' detractors have some strong ammunition, even though the coach remains respected nationally as a wonderful teacher and role model.
Diogu's supporting cast this season has mostly been maddeningly inconsistent, if not downright lousy at times. That's led many to question Evans' ability to adequately develop his players, and about the level of athlete that he's been able to attract to Tempe.
As the hard rain of criticism has fallen on Evans and the team, the coach says he's counseled Diogu and the other players on the ways of the world.
"Ike and the guys think that our fans should support the team no matter what," Evans tells New Times. "But I've always told them to appreciate the accolades, but to remember that the other side of accolades is what we've been getting for the last few months. I tell them not to buy into the praise because they'll have to buy into the criticism."
The sniping at Coach Evans has been eating at Diogu for weeks, though he chose until recently to maintain his stoic public silence.
In the privacy of their dorm room just down the street from the Wells Fargo Arena, Diogu and his savvy roommate, Serge Angounou, spoke passionately about the situation.
"We've definitely lost some close games that we should have won, but we have some serious ball to play yet," Diogu said a few weeks ago. "We know we have more doubters out there than fans, and we know people are lining up against Coach [Evans]. But they don't know him like we know him. He's our guy. You'd think we were 11-18, not the other way around. You can't make anybody happy in this place. If we went 32-0, they'd still figure out some way we're messing up."
Diogu paused, and added in the clipped, precise manner he employs when he wants to emphasize a point, "This is basketball, not life or death. We have an opportunity to play ball, have fun and go to college on a scholarship. It's cool here. I can chill just fine. My friends are cool, coaches are cool, classes are cool. I just wish we had more support."
The man who's carried the ASU basketball program on his back this season insisted in that dorm-room conversation that he hasn't made up his mind about his plans after this year.
But then he turned directly to his visitor, with whom he was sharing a weathered living-room couch, and said that if ASU sacks Evans, he'll sack ASU.
"I feel an obligation to Coach Evans for what he's done for me personally and on the court," Diogu stated.
That's not to say, he explained, that he still won't choose to go pro after he adds everything up. Whatever he does decide, his loyalty to ASU's beleaguered program remains unshakable.
Everyone inside the program has known that since soon after he arrived in Tempe.
Now, the world knows.
Without informing Evans of his plans, Diogu called a press conference early last week. He told the beat writers what he'd been saying at the dorm -- that he's out of there if Coach Evans gets the ax.
Diogu was composed and diplomatic in his comments, and somehow made it sound like he wasn't issuing an ultimatum, though he was. Nobody's fool, Diogu knew his comments would send shock waves through ASU's athletic department and the local sports world, and they have.
Coincidentally, ASU athletic director Gene Smith -- Evans' boss -- took a similar job with Ohio State University a few days after Diogu spoke out. Smith's pending departure further muddies the waters around the ASU men's basketball team.
Soon after the short news conference, Diogu apologized to ASU's assistant sports information director, Doug Tammaro, for any hassles that his unexpected statement might cause.
Tammaro smiled, and told Diogu to relax, that people really want to know what he's thinking.
"That's Ike Diogu right there, thinking about someone else," says Tammaro. "I've dealt with great people here who weren't the best athletes, and great athletes who might not have been the best people. But no one has been better with the whole package than Ike. There's no one like him."