Whether Don Newman can shake the interim label at Arizona State remains unclear, but he has already beaten the odds, covered the spread and exceeded the “over” for total wins.
Even Stevin Smith and Isaac Burton, the ex-players convicted in the 1994 point-shaving scheme that led to coach Bill Frieder’s resignation, might not bet against Newman now.
In the short time since Newman was named interim men’s basketball coach (Sept. 22), the Sun Devils have knocked off Cincinnati and taken No. 2 Kansas to overtime, hardly resembling the team that stumbled to a 10-20 record last season.
At 11-5 overall and 1-2 in the Pacific-10 Conference, Newman’s Sun Devils have been one of college basketball’s biggest surprises.
Newman’s journey has been at least as surprising: Few coaches parlay a .149 career winning percentage into a Pac-10 head coaching job.
“When you work hard, when you earn respect and credibility among your peers, sometimes good things will happen to you and you get opportunities,” Newman said Saturday from the team hotel in Moscow, where the Sun Devils stayed as they prepared for today’s noon tipoff against Washington State (7-6, 0-2).
Of course, Newman’s 20-114 record in five years at Sacramento State comes with several asterisks, including a tradition of community apathy toward the program and one of the worst facilities in Division I.
“There’s no question that I always had confidence in myself in the ability to run the program,” Newman said. “This year, I’m getting to put my signature on a Pac-10 program. I’m quite familiar with the league, the caliber of talent and the play, so it seems very natural to me.”
Newman, who played point guard at Idaho from 1978-80, served under Kelvin Sampson at WSU from 1987-92. After five years in Sacramento, he joined Frieder’s staff last June.
When Frieder stepped aside in the wake of the gambling scandal, ASU reportedly pursued several high-profile candidates, including Sampson and Utah coach Rick Majerus.
The 40-year-old Newman was hired almost by default, inheriting a team with just seven scholarship players. He has been up to the challenge.
“He gets us all to play hard,” forward Bobby Lazor said.
The addition of Lazor, a 6-foot-9, 231-pound transfer from Syracuse, has enhanced a returning cast that features Jeremy Veal, Mike Batiste, Eddie House and Ahlon Lewis.
Lazor averages 18.3 points and 7.9 rebounds per game. Batiste isn’t far behind, at 16.1 and 7.0.
Veal, the Pac-10’s top returning scorer, leads ASU with 19.6 points per game, while Lewis leads the nation in assists (9.25).
“I give a lot of credit to these guys,” Newman said, “because they’ve bought into what I’m selling and they’ve been fighters, man. That’s why I respect them.”
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