Arizona State basketball coach Rob Evans won’t talk about his job status. “I don’t go there,” Evans said Monday. “I don’t live in speculation.” Others do, however, and the most popular parlor game at ASU these days is guessing who will replace Evans after this season — assuming he is fired.
Will it be former Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins? Texas Tech coach Bobby Knight? How about Wichita State’s Mark Turgeon, ex-Stanford coach Mike Montgomery, or former ASU guard Lionel Hollins?
Pick a name, any name, and he’s been mentioned on some radio talk show or message board.
It’s unseemly to be talking about the new coach when the old coach is in the middle of the season — Evans deserves better than that — but such is the nature of big-time college sports.
You go to one NCAA tournament in seven years, you’re 1-7 in Pac-10 play in your eighth year, and the vultures aren’t going to wait for your carcass to rot.
What’s missing amid all the chatter, however, is some perspective.
The ASU basketball program is not the sleeping giant some make it out to be. In fact, it may be, outside of Washington State, the most difficult place to win in the Pac-10.
Now, that doesn’t mean the program is irreparably damaged. Who thought Arizona would be a basketball power before Lute Olson arrived in Tucson?
But ASU has hired two coaches with impressive resumes — Evans led a dormant Mississippi program to two consecutive NCAA appearances, and Bill Frieder coached Michigan to four NCAA tournament berths — and neither was able to duplicate his success at ASU.
“Over the years everybody has looked at Arizona State and said, ‘Oh, that’s a great job,’ ” said Montgomery, Stanford’s coach from 1986 to 2004. “That’s just people looking at it as a place to live and all the surrounding stuff. The truth of the matter is all the surrounding stuff is as big a problem as it is a plus.”
The biggest hurdle at ASU is the lack of a recruiting base with which to draw from. In the 27-year history of the Pac-10, only eight Arizona high school players have made the all-conference team. The state of Washington has had 16 players, Oregon 14.
Only four local prep athletes — Brad Lohaus, Sean Elliott, Mike Bibby and Richard Jefferson — have been McDonald’s All-Americans.
A look at the current Pac-10 rosters is telling: Only Washington State (2) and Arizona (0) have fewer instate recruits on their roster than ASU (3).
Washington, on the other hand, has seven local players, UCLA 13 and USC nine.
It’s far easier to win when your backyard is a gold mine.
Has Evans missed on some talented local players? Absolutely. Page’s Matt Haryasz went to Stanford, St. Mary’s guard Jason Fontenet is at Oregon State, and 6-foot-10 Brophy center Nick Lewis is averaging 17.1 points and 5.1 rebounds per game for the University of San Diego.
That said, ASU isn’t going to win with local talent. The shelves aren’t stocked, and the best players — like Elliott, Jefferson, and Bibby — are swallowed up by Arizona.
“There are not as many Pac-10 players in the area that I perceived there to be,” Evans said.
And once ASU has to go outside the state to recruit, what is it selling?
It has no tradition, little recent success, an empty arena and a community that cares more about its professional sports teams than college basketball.
“You’ll hear people say, ‘I want to go to Duke, I want to go to Arizona,’ ” Evans said. “You’ve got to convince people to come to Arizona State.”
It can be done — Ike Diogu is proof — but the notion that pretty coeds, first-class facilities and sunny skies are enough to point kids to ASU is logic that is about as deep as a kiddie pool.
The tough sell is why Purdue’s Gene Keady and Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun rebuffed overtures by ASU before Frieder was hired in 1989.
“Before I took the job, some coaches I know tried to discourage me,” Evans said. “It’s not easy, but I do feel like it’s a doable job.”
When he first arrived in Tempe, Evans talked about filling Wells Fargo Arena just as he did Tad Smith Coliseum at Mississippi.
He knows better now. ASU is all cowboy hat and no cattle.
“I imagine over time it’s, ‘How come they can’t be like Arizona?’ ” Montgomery said. “Well, Arizona is Arizona. Everybody has their own niche.”
ASU has had three NCAA tournament appearances since 1981. It’s never averaged more than 9,514 fans per game in a season.
Maybe a new coach will blow his whistle and change the culture.
But here’s a disturbing thought:
What if this is ASU’s niche?