20 March 2008

ASU Beats Up Upbeat ASU

Rarely do I enjoy sitting near a team band, especially in an indoor arena, but Tuesday's first round NIT game between host ASU and Alabama State was a memorable exception. Alabama State, the "other" ASU, was overmatched on the court, but their dazzling pep band won over many of the Tempe faithful and, frankly, put all Pac-10 pep bands to bed.

Just two years after Lee's surrender at Appomattox, nine newly "former" slaves privately opened Alabama State. They called it Lincoln Normal School back then, after the slain emancipator. Within a decade, it grew to be the nation's first state funded school for black students. Nowadays, there's some white kids on the golf team, but it's still very much a black school in character. At Tuesday night's game, every member of the pep band was black. All ten cheerleaders. The entire men's roster.

I'm not a music critic and cant exactly convey how the five strutting drummers, three tubas and countless smaller horns sounded, but I think it's fair to say they were "abundantly percussive" . Two theatrical dancers played giant brass cymbals in the band's back row, deftly and beautifully manipulating the reflective discs like baton twirlers. The cheer team was kickin' and the team mascot was an equally down Hornet. Initially, many ASU fans didnt know what to make of these .... these... BLACKS! The pregame routines were met with mostly silence, then hesitant, scattered applause. But eventually, most in the crowd warmed up to the Hornet Pep Band. I guess what I liked most about this little school was it's attitude. Invisible nationally, heavy underdog guests in a Pac-10 lair, and they just barged in with a positive and constructive - but totally in your face - attitude that they're every bit as good as you are.

Across our aisle, a couple U of A students taunted the mostly middle aged ASU boosters nearby with handwritten signs mocking the Devil's presence in the "lowly" NIT. Truth is, I didnt really have a dog in last night's hunt. I came to root for historically downtrodden but ascendant Arizona State, yet would've also enjoyed witnessing a likeable underdog like Alabama State slay a major conference "goliath". My brother went to U of A, and I even lived in Tucson for a year, but under these particular circumstances, it takes a contentious kind of asshole to drive all the way up from Tucson to graphically ridicule ASU's presence as a #1 seed in the NIT. I dont even disagree with the NCAA selection committee's angrily debated exclusion of ASU. Uof A played a much tougher non conference schedule and the assessment that the Cats are the better team ( when both squads are healthy, as Arizona is now) sounds reasonable. But you still have to be a special tool to travel to a first round NIT game just to mock a team that swept your team - the one that's dancing, nowhere near the arena. The pregame scene got a little ugly, but eased once Arizona State built a sizable first half lead. Best line, from an ASU booster behind me, about my age, directed at the two young Tucson tools:

"Why dont you walk your signs over to the ASU student section on the other side of the arena?"

Heh. Subject your heartfelt convictions to peer review. The popinjays' silence spoke volumes. Point ASU.

The Montgomery five included 7'1" center, Chief Kickingstallionsims, but this colorful contingent was unprepared for First team All Pac-10 freshman, James Harden, who buzzed like a killer bee amonst mere Hornets. 25 and thirteen - and truth be told, he might've had the first triple double in Az St history, had a teammate other than Ty Abbott converted any of Harden's dozen or so delectable dishes for scores. As Bama State closed the gap with ten minutes remaining, I got the distinct impression ASU loses this game without Harden. He was just everywhere; pesky defense, steals, shot blocks, rebounds, and as I say, he easily could've had 8 or 10 assists.

The other troubling constant in the win was Jeff Pendergraph's, by now, characteristic foul trouble, exacerbated Tuesday by a silly technical ( which of course is assessed as a personal foul in college) . While physical and tenacious, he needs to figure out a way to stay on the floor more against quality opposition, if the Devils have any hope of developing into a top twenty type team. They're depth is an issue, and the low post defense really suffers when he's out.

So, my hope is that ASU, a solid defensive unit (with Pendergraph) but with very little offensive balance, can harness their bitterness over NCAA exclusion to make a deep NIT run. Much depends on Pendergraph. Harden's carrying this team right now and any drop in his outstanding two way play means half this NIT field can break ASU down. Alabama State's basketball team was not in that half, though their pep band can break it down with anyone.

(photos courtesy of rbytes.net and David Kadlubowski/The Arizona Republic)


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