Devils on schedule for apathy
By Scott Bordow
, Tribune Columnist
Arizona State's basketball team opens the season today, and its non-conference home schedule reads like a Who's That of college basketball.
Cal State Fullerton.
Four wins. Zero interest.
There is a Dec. 9 date with Temple at America West Arena, but the doors of Wells Fargo Arena might as well be adorned with stop signs.
Feasting on cupcakes was understandable a few years ago, when coach Rob Evans was rebuilding the program.
But this is his sixth year in Tempe, and the Devils are coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance.
Why turn off fans who might have been turned on last year?
“Scheduling is not near as easy as the public thinks it is,” Evans said. “It's not easy to get people to come to Arizona State and play.”
No one expects Evans to make the schedule so difficult it drains the Devils' confidence — and irreparably harms their record — before the Pac-10 season begins.
But how about mixing in a couple of name opponents — say, a Gonzaga or Texas Tech — to get the juices flowing?
Evans' response? He has tried.
“We've called practically every school in the country,” he said, rattling off a list that included Michigan State, Arkansas, Memphis, Louisville, Michigan, Seton Hall and St. Johns. “I think what you need to do is call those teams and ask them why they won't come play.
“I like to play good teams. I'd like to play at least one or two top-notch teams every year. I don't run from anybody.”
What Evans won't do is go on the road without getting a home date in return, or schedule a two-for-one: two road games for one home game.
“This university has too much self-respect for that,” he said.
To be fair, ASU's schedule might be more appealing if Texas A&M hadn't backed out of a commitment to play in its holiday tournament. So did Princeton, the Devils' second choice.
Winthrop is coming, instead. The Sun Devils also say their scheduling flexibility is limited because they can't play the week of final exams, which this year falls Dec. 10-17.
“We have a small window,” Evans said.
But there's another factor at play here, too. Evans has a young team, with nine freshmen and sophomores. He wants to see who can play and who can't, and the best way to do that is to schedule teams ASU can beat — and use as a petri dish.
“If you have a schedule that challenges a veteran team, then I'm going to play seven guys, and six of my guys are not going to get a chance to play and grow because I have to win,” Evans said. “People want you to play top teams, but you have to balance it because these young guys are a work in progress.”
Evans never has weighed down his home non-conference schedule. In 1996-97, his University of Mississippi team went 20-9 overall and 11-5 in the SEC.
Among the Rebels' home games the following year: Louisiana Tech, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Belmont, Prairie View A&M and Northwestern State.
Evans' reasoning: The SEC schedule was tough enough, so why kill the kids in November and December?
He feels the same way about the Pac-10.
“The bottom line is that, as all of the coaches in our league point out, we play at least 14 games against top competition,” he said.
Evans says he wants to upgrade the schedule next season, when ASU will be older, wiser, and, presumably, better.
“I'd like to play four games against teams in the top 40,” he said.
But, he added, “You're not going to find them.”
Then ASU needs to start looking somewhere else. Ike Diogu
and last season's tournament berth whetted the fans' appetite, but in a marketplace consumed by four professional sports teams, the Sun Devils are inviting apathy by loading their non-conference home schedule with undesirables.