Arizona St. Adds Life To Southeast Regional

History and success fairly drip from the basketball traditions at Kentucky, North Carolina and Georgetown.

Then there is Arizona State.

If the three marquee entries in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament Southeast Regional are tuxedos, the Sun Devils are sandals.

Exciting sandals, exposing lots of tattoos, but still an imperfect accessory to the elegant college hoops wardrobe being shown off today.

What the Sun Devils lack in tradition, they make up for in lack of solemnity.

The coaches and players from the other three schools who met the media Wednesday barely managed a smile, looking collectively as if Sister Mary were about to whack knuckles at the first glint of merriment. They all recited the proper liturgy about being thrilled to be here, and what a wonderful opportunity this was, and how respectful they were of their honored opponent and blahblahblah …

Then Mario Bennett, ASU’s 6-foot-9 studhoss center with a dunking “SuperMario” cartoon tattoo covering most of his considerable left bicep, was asked what he thought about playing Kentucky and reaching the round of 16 and just the blasted immensity of it all.

“It’s good,” he said, “to be alive.”

Then he giggled with his partner in mirth, teammate Ron Riley. These guys are the kind to burp in church. Perhaps they can be forgiven - since the Pac-10 so rarely gets this far, it’s difficult to know how to act.

Then again, the players are taking cues from their coach, Bill Frieder, who is one whoopee cushion short of his own half-hour on the Comedy Channel.

Frieder blew in Wednesday and offered that if the fifth-seeded Sun Devils win today’s match against No. 1 Kentucky, he would meet the press while getting a trim from a barber. Why not save time with two tasks at once?

The haircut/interview is an old stunt for the relentless, frequently sleepless Frieder. It just seems fresh because it’s on a national stage, which has missed Frieder for some time and ASU for much longer.

Not since the Lionel Hollins-led team of 1975 has ASU been to the round of 16. And although Frieder now has been to postseason play the last 12 seasons - six here and six at Michigan - the appearances have been mostly in the NIT since he moved to Phoenix in 1989.

That was the year hoop fans may recall that Michigan arrived at the Final Four in the Kingdome with Frieder’s successor, Steve Fisher, as head coach. When then-Michigan A.D. Bo Schembechler heard Frieder had talked with ASU, he fired him near the end of the season. Fisher then ran the table in Seattle with Frieder’s players.

It’s taken six years, but Frieder finally has regained the national stage, back with Georgetown’s John Thompson, North Carolina’s Dean Smith and Kentucky’s Rick Pitino.

“They’re all at the top echelon of the game,” Frieder said. “For us to be here … it’s an honor.”

But not necessarily a fluke. At 53, Frieder still looks like he’s just emerged from a clothes dryer that also contained bowling balls. But he is never to be dismissed as a Guy V. Lewis-type character, whose charm masked a woeful absence of clues as to what is going on. Frieder’s work ethic and game knowledge are at least the equal of renowned Pitino’s, even if his players are not.

While his team is entirely capable of falling asleep against lesser teams, the Sun Devils have beaten fellow Sweet 16 teams Oklahoma State and Maryland. They also swept Arizona for about the first time since Lute Olson replaced Wyatt Earp as sheriff.

In junior Bennett, Frieder has a shot-blocking powerhouse who can also handle the ball and can ring up serious points on even defenses as reputable as Kentucky’s.

Frieder has created in Bennett and his teammates an insouciance that has made big games manageable in a program without pedigree.

“We play hard for him - he’s energetic,” Bennett said. “He can’t stay in place. It reflects on us. We are probably one of the craziest teams in the country. I don’t mean wild, but we just like to have a good time within ourselves. Coach is the same way.”

Having a good time at the bigmoney, big-pressure NCAA tourney? Wonder if it’ll catch on?

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