Winning Season

Emily Piraino

It's one day before Arizona State University's first official practice of the 2002-03 season.

The basketball staff meets at Rob and Carolyn Evans' beautiful Ahwatukee home at 8 a.m. to discuss the upcoming season. The gathering includes the three assistant coaches Russ Pennell, Tony Benford and Dan O'Dowd. Derrick Wrobel and Dr. Joe Carr also are present.

Wrobel is the team's director of operations (translation: Jack-of-all-trades).

A famed sports psychologist, Carr has been in Tempe working with the ASU team. He and Evans have a long history, going back 35 years. From Washington, D.C., Carr long ago had a mad jump shot that earned him the nickname "Radar." But poor grades forced him in 1967 to attend New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs. Oscar Evans Rob's dad was working as a janitor there, and became a surrogate father to the young black man.

Carr later earned his doctorate in psychology. Last season, he consulted with eight of the Sweet 16 teams in the NCAA tournament.

After breakfast, the group adjourns upstairs to a room with 12 cushioned theater seats. Coach Evans is on a stool in front of a large screen; everyone else sits in the audience. If nothing else, the coach is a realist, and he knows that many things will have to fall into place for ASU to reach its goal a berth in the NCAA tournament in March 2003.

He starts the four-hour session by giving a snapshot synopsis of the team. For almost every player's upside, there seems to be a serious downside. For example, he says this about Kyle Dodd, a scrappy senior point guard who's expected to back up sophomore Jason Braxton:

"KD. Team leader. The kids love him. Gravitate toward him. Black kids, white kids, everyone. Works like hell for us, and we know exactly what we're going to get from him every night. As you know, he lost his confidence in his shot last year, and I don't know if he's going to get it back. But I have a feeling he may become very important to us as the season goes on."

Dodd is one of four seniors on the team who were part of Evans' first freshman recruiting class at ASU: Donnell Knight, Tommy Smith and Shawn Redhage are the others. (Justin Allen, the fifth member, will have another year of eligibility left after missing the 2000-01 season battling Hodgkin's disease, a form of cancer. It's been in remission for more than two years.)

Each of those players is battle-tested and in the inspiring Allen's case, life-tested. But two of the seniors, forwards Smith and Knight, are local kids for whom expectations have been exceedingly and probably unfairly high.

Redhage, a 6-7 forward, and Dodd are fine college players and are a pleasure to coach. But the staff doesn't expect them to dominate many games. Allen is still trying to find his playing niche after his devastating illness.

The two other seniors guard Curtis Millage and center Chris Osborne are junior-college transfers in their final years at ASU. Millage showed flashes of brilliance last season, and his improved play will be vital to the team's success. But Osborne hasn't been able to cope with Evans' strict emphasis on superior physical conditioning and rugged defense.

As for the underclassmen, point guard Braxton is lightning-quick and plays tough defense. But he's a poor shooter and an erratic decision-maker. Junior-college transfer Jamal Hill has been recruited because of his shooting prowess. But it's a leap to major-college ball, where the players simply are better.

Mesa's Kenny Crandall is a fine outside shooter with a deft court sense. But he's still recovering from a shattered ankle sustained in a dirt-bike crash after last season ended, one of three Sun Devils who survived potentially fatal accidents in the off-season (Hill and Osborne were the others, in separate car wrecks).

Most exciting to Evans are three big freshmen just starting at ASU Serge Angounou, Allen Morill and, most prominently, 6-8 Ike Diogu.

The staff expects Angounou, a charismatic 6-7 forward from the African nation of Cameroon, to push enigmatic Donnell Knight for playing time as the season progresses. He's been in the States for just two years he went to high school in Albuquerque and is conversant in English (he thinks in French, and speaks three other languages fluently).

But, Evans warns, "This is a kid who's going to have trouble with abstract concepts. We're gonna throw jargon on him that he won't understand, like Take it to the hole,' and You got to crash the glass.'"

"We should take extra time to show him visually what we mean, then show him tape," suggests Coach Benford, an excellent teacher who was drafted by the Boston Celtics in 1986 after his college career at Texas Tech. "He's going to bring a lot to the table when he figures out a few things."  

Though Evans has been planning to red-shirt Morill this season, the 6-7 bruiser from Arlington, Texas, is determined to force himself into the mix. The coaches already love Morill, in part because of how the kid has endured in the face of extreme personal hardships.

Morill's troubled parents abandoned him when he was in grade school, and he's been bounced around family members ever since. His bed at his dorm room is the first he's been able to call his own since he was 12. Morill looks ferocious at first blush and he is, on the court. But he's remarkably good-natured, and his loyalty to the program is unshakable.

The coaches already know the heavily recruited Diogu is the real deal. Also from Texas, he's shown during informal workouts that he's a graceful warrior blessed with a knack around the hoop of getting his shot up and in no matter what. As a bonus, he has a silky shooting touch. But he's still just a freshman who hasn't played a college game yet.

"He's a great kid, talented kid," Evans says of Diogu, "but we have to hold him accountable and push him to the next level. That's what we told his parents we'd do, and we're going to do it."

That leads to a discussion of Tommy Smith, the slender 6-10 senior who played high school ball at Phoenix's North High. Over the summer, Smith had a tattoo etched into his right arm that says "Rim Reaper." It might have said "Underachiever," for that's what his reputation has been for much of his career.

"Tommy needs to believe this is his team," Tony Benford says. "He has everything going for himself. He's a very sensitive kid, and I don't want him to be too unselfish. I think the game has slowed down for him finally, and he can do some special things."

Evans brings up Knight, the former high school All-American whose career at ASU also has been a disappointment.

"I haven't been able to get through to Donnell," the coach says. "He's a good kid, and he's always wanted to please me, but he doesn't have an identity."

Joe Carr has an idea.

"You're going to talk about a job vacancy with Donnell," he says. "It's The Junkman.' This job is for someone who has to have a certain amount of touches when he's in the game offensive and defensive rebounds, deflections, steals. Does that make any sense?"

Evans says that it does.

As the meeting nears an end, the coach speaks about the crying need for more team leadership this season from the veteran players. "If we don't have stronger leadership from us and from our seniors," he says, "we're looking at mediocrity."

"14 and 15," Coach O'Dowd chimes in, reminding everyone of last season's forgettable record.

"You think we're gonna be 14 and 15 this year?" Evans snaps at his assistant.

"No," O'Dowd shoots back, "but I'm tired of being mediocre and I'm sick of losing."

"All I want to do is to win, Dan O," Evans says. "All I want is to win."

Midnight Madness is a tradition in major-college basketball, a time when big-time basketball programs often introduce themselves, sometimes on national television.

By midnight on the day Coach Evans has met with his staff, almost 14,000 rabid fans have filled McKale Center, home of the University of Arizona basketball team. The Wildcats are ranked number one in the nation in the preseason polls, and expectations for the team are mammoth.

Seasons in Tucson are measured by Final Four appearances; ASU would be thrilled just to get into the big tournament for the first time in eight years.

Actor turned sports-talk shill Tom Arnold works the crowd with jokes about the enemies to the north. "Hey, ASU fans," he bellows, "you guys always finish in the top of the Pac-10 in steals, rebounds and shaved points.... And congratulations on leading the Pac-10 in stealing last season. How about this year you keep it on the court?"

Arnold, of course, is referring to the myriad scandals at ASU that led to Rob Evans getting hired five years ago. The fans roar at Arnold's shtick, then revel in the introductions of each player, the slam-dunk contest, and a full-scale practice.

The Sun Devils have their own version of Midnight Madness at eight o'clock the next morning.

Exactly 13 people not including players, coaches and other team personnel look on as Coach Evans speaks softly to his team before practice starts: "I want to give you this advice don't be too critical of yourself when you analyze things, and don't hype yourself. We're trying to take this thing farther than it's gone for a long time.  

"Remember this: Frustration is an enemy not your friend and you got to defeat it. I can't begin to tell you all the battles I fought and fight. Like Justin [Allen] and I talked about two years ago when he was in a life-and-death struggle. Don't ever, ever quit. Now let's get to work."

Though the veteran players already know what to expect during preseason, ASU's new players soon get a crash course in the world according to Rob Evans.

That includes an unrelenting emphasis on physical conditioning and mental focus. When Evans or the other coaches feel someone is slacking on the court or in the classroom there's hell to pay. (A team rule: If a player cuts class, he has to run five miles at dawn the next day.)

On November 11, the coach calls for a 9 a.m. workout. Though Evans allows the public to attend team practices, only two fans one of them a teen who rode his skateboard down the west ramp are in attendance.

The coach soon grows frustrated with his team's effort. "Guys, we are getting ready for the season," Evans says. "Get your butts ready to play today, right now! No more bullshit!"

When things don't get appreciably better, he calls for the dreaded "Mr. Iba Drill," named after the late Hall of Fame coach.

One at a time, each player falls backward to the ground (it's called taking a charge), gets up, dives for a ball, throws it to a coach, then rushes to the hoop. There, he must sink three lay-ins as two team managers try to shove him off-balance with cushioned pads. If he doesn't finish fast, exhaustion is sure to grab him.

This is Jamal Hill's first Iba, and he misses his first two tries, crashing to the floor after the second one. He raises himself slowly and tries again, finally getting two shots to fall.

But Hill has to sink one more lay-up, and he's just about out of gas. The managers keep shoving him, though not as forcefully as at first. But Hill then misses 11 straight shots over an interminable two-minute stretch.

"Let him go," Evans says stoically, as Hill again falls beneath the basket, gasping for air.

The entire team is exhorting Hill to score just one more basket, please. Co-captain Tommy Smith, not a vocal sort, can't restrain himself: "Get it done, Jamal! Make it happen!"

Mercifully, Hill hits his third and final shot. He staggers over to a garbage can near the court and vomits into it. He crumples to the floor near the can, and tries to catch his breath, then he vomits again.

Trainer Koichi Sato rushes over with a towel and a cup of water, and asks Hill some questions. The player tries to smile, but can't.

"I felt like a boxer in the ring, like I got hit with a wham-bam," Hill says a few weeks later. "But I could feel Coach Evans sitting there like an old grandpa watching me tough it out. I couldn't quit."

That's the point Evans reemphasizes in the locker room after the November 11 practice. "Jamal just had to take the licking and keep on ticking," he says. "At some point, you got to get tougher. I'm looking for players that's what I'm looking for. And I'm going to find them!"

Dan O'Dowd adds, "You're going to be filled with adversity all year. How we meet that adversity is going to determine our season."

His words soon get put to the test.

With the end of the preseason at hand, the player of players so far has been Curtis Millage, the 6-0 southpaw from Los Angeles.

Millage is a savvy 21-year-old who grew up tough in south-central Los Angeles. Thanks especially to his mother, Deborah Rawls, he has a well-defined sense of right and wrong, and seems determined to forge a decent life for himself.

But Millage historically has had trouble in the classroom, and he did poorly in the previous spring semester. A switch of majors meant he had to pass his summer-school classes to be eligible for basketball and he did.

But on November 13, Coach Evans learns that ASU administrators have declared Millage ineligible for play. Someone it's still unclear who wrongly advised the player on the number of classes he needed to qualify. He may be one class short of eligibility.  

The coach knows Millage will be devastated. Joe Carr is back in town, and privately likens the school's action to a "drive-by shooting."

Evans lures Millage out to his home, then tells him what's happened. The coach asks Millage if he'll tell the other players later that day, so they can hear it directly.

That night, ASU plays its first practice game against a traveling team of ex-college players. Millage sits in street clothes at the end of the bench, lost in thought and disconsolate.

During the game, Serge Angounou displays the raw talent that has thrilled the coaches in practice. The 19-year-old from Cameroon wears a contagious smile, and his passion for the game is visible in his every move. He promises to be a huge addition.

Angounou collects 11 points and eight rebounds before landing clumsily on his right knee in the second half. He hobbles off the court. The knee has been seriously injured. Angounou will be lost for the year.

With the double-whammy of Angounou's injury and Millage's iffy status, Evans is reconsidering his decision to red-shirt the ever-improving Allen Morill. But the coach then gets hammered again.

A few days before the November 22 season opener against Morehead State, the NCAA rules Morill didn't take enough "core classes" during his senior year in high school to qualify for play this season. He'll retain his scholarship and can practice with the team, but won't be able to compete this year.

"From the beginning," Coach Evans responds angrily, ". . . I did not want [Morill] stereotyped. Anyone who knows Allen's background will know that this is a kid who has had to fight through a lot of adversity. I wanted this to be a private issue... Allen is an amazing kid, and a true inspiration for children who have been dealt a tough life. He will be stronger because of this."

One day before the Morehead State game, Rob Evans has far too much on his mind.

"My players have to trust me, trust that I'm going to do the right thing," he says. "I can't lose them as people. I'd told Curtis, Do what you have to do and things will work out.' He did that took all the classes he was supposed to, passed them and things still aren't happening for him. I feel like I failed the kid. I had to call his mom in L.A. the other night, when she was driving her bus. I had to tell her I couldn't help her son. This is eating me up."

In Los Angeles, Millage's mother, Deborah Rawls, is at a loss.

"I don't know what they're doing to my boy," she says. "I know the Evanses have been looking after him since he got there, but this is just wrong. He was so proud of himself for pulling it all together..."

Millage has pleaded his case in a one-on-one meeting with ASU athletic director Gene Smith, who didn't give him any guarantees.

"I wanted to go home to my mama because I didn't know what else to do," he says later. "But I heard the coach talking in the back of my head stuff about never letting people down who are counting on you. So I stayed put, played it out."

The Sun Devils squeak past Morehead State, then leave the next day for three games at the Maui Invitational in Hawaii. Millage listens on the radio from Tempe as powerful Kentucky pounds his team.

Then, on the court moments before tip-off of ASU's second tournament game, against Chaminade, Evans gets wonderful news: The school has just cleared Millage to play. The player hops on the next flight to Hawaii, and scores 26 points in an overtime victory against Utah. Though it would be a few months before Millage gets his game back to where it was before the academic flap, his return gives the Sun Devils a needed boost.

But ASU has yet to find a groove. Haunted by poor outside shooting, and maddeningly inconsistent play from most of the seniors, the Devils have a so-so 5-3 record as they prepare for a December 21 game in Las Vegas against Big Ten perennial standout Purdue.

Russ Pennell challenges the lethargic team at the early morning shoot-around at Vegas' Thomas and Mack Center: "You better clean your acts up right now or you're going to have your heads handed to you. YOU GOT TO PICK IT UP RIGHT NOW!"

For whatever reason, ASU is more ready to play on this night than they've been all season. Led by Ike Diogu who, more and more, has been imposing his monumental will on the court and an effectively aggressive Shawn Redhage, the Sun Devils manhandle the Boilermakers, 70-53.  

It turns out to be this season's breakthrough game.

ASU starts its 18-game conference schedule on January 2, against Oregon State in Corvallis. Led again by the indomitable Diogu, the Sun Devils win by 20, a crucial road victory in a league where such wins are at a premium.

Two nights later, the sellout crowd of 9,087 at delightfully rickety McArthur Court in Eugene is rollicking as the game starts. ASU quiets the fans by taking a 39-33 lead at halftime against the Ducks, the nation's ninth-ranked team.

"They're gonna make a run at you at some point," Coach Evans warns his team during the break, "but we'll make a run, too. You just be poised and it will happen for you."

But the Sun Devils do lose their cool as the Ducks score 21 points in a row early in the second half. The damage is done: Oregon 94, ASU 73.

In the locker room after the game, Evans says, "All you guys battled hard for most of the game. You just lost your poise a little bit that can happen out there on the court, sometimes in life. We're here to teach you to keep it from happening when at all possible, which is almost all of the time."

The coach finishes by telling his team that he didn't appreciate Oregon coach Ernie Kent urging the fans to make more noise in the game's final seconds, with victory well in hand.

"We owe these guys something," Evans says. "I have a real feeling that when we see them in our house at the end of the year, it's going to be big for both of us. Remember what you saw and felt out there tonight."

In the media room, Evans repeats what he's just told his team, that Ducks forward Luke Jackson dominated the game in the second half. A reporter asks the coach if he actually means Jackson's vaunted teammate Luke Ridnour, who also played well.

"They all look alike, but I know them," Evans replies, deadpan. He waits a beat, to gauge the reaction to his twist on the racist stereotype (both of Oregon's Lukes are white). Then he smiles, and moves on to the next question.

ASU wins three of its next four games, and goes into its big game against rival Arizona on January 22 with an excellent league mark of 4-2.

The Sun Devils are tense at 2 p.m. on the day of the Arizona game. The players are shooting the ball at Wells Fargo Arena for a few minutes before eating at their pregame strategy meeting, then boarding a bus for the trip to Tucson.

But Donnell Knight isn't here. Though he's said to be on track to earn his college degree in sociology, Knight never has been a diligent student.

His lack of academic attentiveness forced him to take a class between the winter and spring semesters, but his grade isn't in yet. If it isn't filed before the team gets on the bus, Knight a starter won't be playing against the Wildcats.

Though he's only averaging about seven points per game, Knight has been a valuable asset, guarding the other team's best scoring forward, and milking his Junkman role to the max.

At 2:10, Knight walks into the arena with his father, looking sheepish. He stands to the side as Pennell instructs the team briefly on Arizona's defensive schemes.

Without Knight, the players soon hop into two pickup trucks, and go the short distance to the Tempe Mission Palms hotel for the pregame meal and strategy session.

Coaches Evans and Benford don't make it to the hourlong meeting, which includes a short, voluntary Bible study led by team chaplain Larry Pettiford.

Russ Pennell reviews the Wildcats' imposing roster man-by-man. He gets to 6-9 senior forward Rick Anderson, saying that "he battles, is a good interior passer, and will put up a three [point shot] anytime."

Pennell then leaves his script: "Let's just say Ricky can be dirty from time to time. Whoever guards him and we still don't know what the story is with Donnell yet you're not going to cheap-shot him or be dirty back. But stay poised."

Back at the bus, it's official: No Knight tonight.

ASU has won against a Lute Olson-coached team in Tucson just once in his 19 years there. Evans has beaten Olson only once in nine tries. He doesn't seem likely to get number two, as the first half ends with Arizona overwhelmingly ahead, 40-20.  

For once, Ike Diogu has played like an intimidated freshman, and senior Tommy Smith who the team has needed badly in Knight's absence has been invisible. Only Kyle Dodd has played well, after replacing Jason Braxton in the first half.

"This isn't us," Curtis Millage says inside ASU's shell-shocked dressing room. "We're not ASU tonight. We're somebody else."

Adds Shawn Redhage, who usually doesn't say much but has his teammates' respect, "Guys, we can't be playing scared like this. We have to go up stronger."

Coach Evans steps into the room, and speaks at first with studied calm.

"Guys, this is just a basketball game against a good basketball team on the road, that's all. Bottom line is, your will is not strong right now."

He then picks up his tempo and volume, sounding like a fire-and-brimstone preacher.

"Guys, this isn't life or death! If you miss a freakin' shot, you miss it! It isn't the end of your basketball career! You know, I mean to God, some of you guys want to go hide right now, and I won't have that on my teams or in the people I'm around!"

Improbably, ASU slowly claws back into contention after falling behind by 26 points early in the second half. Kenny Crandall comes off the bench and bombs in four three-point shots. Curtis Millage is screaming on the court like a banzai warrior. Ike Diogu finally has found his game. Kyle Dodd has continued to play with great poise and effectiveness.

ASU has a chance to cut the lead to two points with a few minutes to go in the game, but can't convert.

Just as Russ Pennell had predicted, Rick Anderson throws a nasty elbow at Shawn Redhage near ASU's bench after the Sun Devil forward fouls him with 49 seconds left. Arizona is ahead by five points at the time. But the referees miss the flagrant foul against Anderson.

Evans comes unglued at the non-call, and has to be physically restrained by Tony Benford. Carolyn Evans jumps out of her seat behind the ASU bench, screaming at the refs.

Any chance that the Sun Devils had is gone, and the game ends moments later. ASU has outscored the Wildcats 43-31 in the second half, but Arizona wins by eight.

"I don't say this too often," Evans says in the silent dressing room. "Curtis Millage played this game like I did when I was playing. He played to win very, very deep. Like a champion. He took it to another level tonight. Lesser teams would have quit in this game. I'll tell you this, and I'm talking about life now, not just about this game. You got to go out fighting whatever you do, and you did. The greatest lesson in life to learn even though you lose a game like this is that you won something here."

Evans points to his heart.

The coach asks if anyone else wants to speak.

"I'm not tryin' to be a leader or anything," says Millage, too tired even to pull off his sweat-soaked jersey. "But I got to ask, was anybody here the first half? Yes or no. Step up here right now."

"New experience for some of them, Curtis," Evans cautions, when no one moves.

"This can't happen no more," Millage says, starting to cry.

The coach's praise seems like a distant memory at practice two days later, when he orders his team through the dreaded Iba Drill, the first one since Jamal Hill's vomiting incident two months earlier.

This time, however, Hill finishes the drill in seconds, then releases a scream of relief that echoes around the rafters at empty Wells Fargo Arena. At mid-court, Rob Evans smiles.

ASU wins five of its next six games before its February 22 rematch against Arizona.

The game generates a giddy buzz around the Valley. Every daily sports columnist in town writes a variation on the "defining moment" theme, that if the Sun Devils win, then Coach Evans' rebuilding job will be complete.

It's not going to be easy. Arizona is ranked number one in the nation for a reason, and it has just one league loss, a shocker at home against Stanford.

The standing-room-only crowd at Wells Fargo is the fourth-largest in arena history. For once, the Arizona Wildcats fans which number a few thousand will be outgunned by the ASU faithful.

This is a turn of events: Though attendance is up at ASU, and the student section has been more supportive of the team than at any time in years, the typical Sun Devil fan is relatively passive: He or she often arrives late, could use a jolt from a cattle prod during the game, and usually leaves before the final horn.  

Not tonight.

Just before game time, Kyle Dodd tells his teammates in the dressing room, "This is college basketball at its best! Fun, fun, fun! Relax, have fun, and we'll get it done!"

But the Sun Devils don't get it done.

Arizona is better than ASU in all phases, including a desire to win. A two-point ASU lead in the last minutes of the first half suddenly turns into an eight-point Arizona lead at the break. The Wildcats then break the game open early in the second half, and win by 20 points. The big boys have made a statement about who's still boss, in Arizona and in the Pac-10.

Almost worse than getting beat, Rob Evans hates getting outfought.

"They whipped us physically and in every other way, including in the will-to-win department," he tells his team after the game. You should respect everybody. You just can't fear any opponent. I didn't fear any opponent. Those guys out-toughed us, which cannot happen again this year."

But the loss to Arizona is followed by two more defeats on the road to Stanford and California, both Top 25 teams that are playing well. The February 27 loss to Stanford is particularly galling to the coaches. Guards Curtis Millage and Kyle Dodd are playing fine. Ike Diogu is proving why he's about to be chosen the Pac-10's freshman of the year.

But an inexplicable malaise has engulfed three front-line players, Donnell Knight, Tommy Smith and Jason Braxton: Knight always says the right things about wanting to help his team win. But he seems to have junked his "Junkman" role: Two points and one rebound against the physical Cardinal won't cut it. Smith plays well one game, disappears the next. Braxton has lost confidence in himself.

In the game against Cal, a hard-fought 80-72 loss, Evans sits the ineffectual Knight for the entire game, and relegates Braxton to spot duty. Shawn Redhage and Kyle Dodd perform admirably in their stead, and the game turns after Redhage fouls out.

The losses leave ASU's hopes for this season hanging in the balance. The Sun Devils cannot afford to lose to either Oregon or Oregon State in their final two regular-season games. If they do, they'll probably have to win at least one game in the Pac-10 tournament to get into the NCAA tournament.

Far more than against clearly superior Arizona, the Oregon game will be a defining moment in Evans' tenure at ASU.

But at halftime, ASU's players are trying to figure out how to keep the Ducks' Luke Ridnour from eating them alive. The 6-0 Ridnour already has scored 20 points in staking Oregon to a 45-41 lead.

"You got to take away his three [pointer], just get up in his face more," Jason Braxton tells his fellow point guard Kyle Dodd, who is getting most of the playing time.

"He's running so hard," Dodd replies. "I'm just going to have to anticipate his moves better. He's on tonight."

Walk-on Brandon Goldman says of Ridnour: "Hey, he just hit some great shots with guys in his face. Nothing you can do about that. But they made almost no transition baskets. We just have to hit the glass better, and we'll be fine."

Evans walks in and repeats what Goldman and Braxton have just said. He reminds everybody that the Ducks came out flying in the second half at Eugene, and tells them that this is their house, their time.

"This is what we're here for, right now," Evans says. "It's time to show everything we've been working for since October, and before that. It's about right now."

The Sun Devils gather in the center of the room and clasp hands.

"Family!" they say as one, then rush back onto the court.

The second half is filled with great basketball. ASU plays perhaps its finest 20 minutes of the year (up there with the second half of the first Arizona game), on its way to a 91-77 win.

Luke Ridnour scores only six points in the second half, as Dodd and Braxton play maniacal defense on the star player. And Tommy Smith has come through with the biggest game of his life, scoring 24 points and collecting 11 rebounds. Curtis Millage and Shawn Redhage also have shined, as has Ike Diogu.

Kenny Crandall comes bounding into the locker room after the game whooping it up.

"We're almost there!" yells Crandall, who hardly played because his bad ankle just won't allow him to move well enough on defense.  

"Listen," says Coach Evans, "you guys went out and busted your butts tonight. This was a team win. Everything is team with us, has to be. You older guys came through like I knew you would because of the focus you've been showing in practice. You win Saturday [against Oregon State], we get our [NCAA]invite. Now, keep your focus, get some sleep, and don't let anybody start kissing up to you."

The team lets out a big cheer.

On Saturday afternoon, March 8, the Sun Devils seal the deal with a taxing 74-64 Senior Day win over the Oregon State Beavers.

"This is a game we wouldn't have been able to handle last year or the year before that," he tells his team right after the game. "When they made that run at us, we stood tall, like you have to do if you want to get anywhere. What are we, 19-10 right now, and 11-7 in the A league? This is how we needed to finish our regular season. But our work isn't done yet."

ASU loses to Oregon in the first-round of the Pac-10 tournament on a last-second hoop by Luke Ridnour, the league's player of the year. Still, the Devils seem assured of a berth in the Big Dance, that is, until a rash of upsets in league tourneys around the nation shove them back onto the proverbial bubble.

Back in the Valley, after the abbreviated trip to L.A., the team practices hard and anxiously awaits Sunday's nationally televised NCAA selection show.

On Sunday, March 16, the moment that the men's basketball program has been awaiting for five years is at hand. Late on the rainy afternoon, the Devils settle into soft leather couches that have been moved to the floor of Wells Fargo Arena. About 200 fans show up to watch the show with their team on the scoreboard screen, which has been lowered to eye level.

After an agonizingly long wait (59 of the tournament's 65 teams are announced before the announcers get to ASU), the Sun Devils' name finally flashes on the big screen: ASU is to play the Memphis Tigers on Thursday, March 20, in Oklahoma City.

After the screaming and hugging die down, Coach Evans and team co-captain Kyle Dodd say a few words to the happy gathering. Marvelously, Dodd sums up this winning season and how ASU men's basketball got back on track.

"The selection show went the same as a lot of our careers," Dodd says. "We just slowly made it through, slowly made it through."

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