BERKELEY, Calif. - Arizona State men’s basketball coach Rob Evans was asked recently whether his team is using preseason media predictions of a last-place Pac-10 finish as motivational fuel.
Evans denied it, but forward Ike Diogu blew his cover Saturday after ASU beat California to move to 2-1 in the Pac-10 and 13-2 overall.
When asked whether Saturday’s win finally would earn the Sun Devils some respect from their detractors, Diogu smirked and replied: "Probably not. Everybody still keeps talking about our schedule and the loss to Arizona."
After their first Bay Area sweep since 1985, it is time to give the Devils their due.
Yes, they beat a Stanford team that was without two of its three leading scorers — point guard Chris Hernandez missed the game with back spasms, and guard Tim Morris was ruled academically ineligible — and a talented trio of now-graduated players who led the team to the conference title last season.
Yes, they beat a Cal team that did not have forward Leon Powe (knee surgery) or point guard Ayinde Ubaka (foot) and got just six minutes from guard Richard Midgley (sprained shoulder).
No, they have not beaten a ranked team (they’ve only played one) and yes, their strength of schedule ranks ninth in the Pac-10 and 129th in the nation.
Regardless, ASU has won when it was supposed to —and won often. Last year’s club might have wilted when Cal made its second-half run Saturday. This year’s club battled through fatigue and poor play to pull out a road win in the Pac-10.
"What a difference a year makes," point guard Jason Braxton said. "Last year, when they went on their run, we might have started doubting ourselves, but this year we don’t even think about it because we know we’re going to win."
The reason: ASU no longer relies solely on Diogu. He’s still capable of carrying the team for long stretches as he did against Cal. But Steve Moore has scored in double figures in seven straight games, Kevin Kruger is making big shots and heady plays, Braxton is running the offense better, Serge Angounou is relieving the pressure inside and the Devils are getting just enough from a host of other players to succeed.
"We talk a lot about everybody being a part of this process and guys keeping themselves ready," Evans said. "They’ve bought into what we’re trying to tell them and we’ve accomplished what we needed to accomplish to this point."
In case nobody’s noticed, the Devils are 2-1 on the road in conference despite leaguewide predictions of road woes. No other Pac-10 team can make that boast.
The Sun Devils have the nation’s fifth-leading scorer and perhaps its most effective player in Diogu. And ASU is 31st in the Collegerpi.com standings, a position, which, if it holds, virtually would lock the club into a tournament berth.
The Devils play nine of their remaining 15 conference games at home before the Pac-10 tournament. There is big-time college basketball being played in Tempe again, and the stakes are getting high.
Next up at Wells Fargo is UCLA, which owns a share of the conference lead and a slight swagger after knocking off No. 12 Washington on Saturday. If ASU somehow can sweep the Los Angeles schools this weekend, it will be 4-1 in the Pac-10 and likely need just six more wins to earn an NCAA invitation.
If Sun Devil fans can’t find a reason to watch this team now, there is no pulse in Tempe.
"We’re hoping that maybe some people will start hopping on the bandwagon," Braxton said. "Internally, we have enough support to get it done, but it’d be great if we started getting some people behind us."