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February 28, 2008Last year when Arizona State made its annual visit to Los Angeles to take on UCLA, Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) Etiwanda High School coach Dave Kleckner arranged for some tickets to the game and made dinner plans.
He got tickets to this year's game, too, on Jan. 31. He made the 40-mile drive on Interstate 10 and enjoyed the game. But dinner was canceled.
"Arizona State played so poorly they didn't do anything after the game," Kleckner said. "They went right back to their hotel."
Had the Sun Devils made a better showing, ASU forward Jeff Pendergraph would have headed out to eat with his old high school coach and former Etiwanda teammate Darren Collison, the Bruins' point guard, just as they had the year before.
As it was, UCLA put an 84-51 beatdown on ASU. Pendergraph, a 6-foot-9 junior, was held to six points and a season-low one rebound. Collison, a 6-1 junior, enjoyed a little more success. He hit all five of his shots and scored 14 points to go along with a season-high nine assists.
The night before, Rene Rougeau and his UNLV teammates were in Forth Worth, Texas. Rougeau, a guard, did what he does for the Rebels, which is to say a little bit of everything with a whole lot of effort. Rougeau, a 6-6 senior, scored nine points on 4-for-6 shooting and added five rebounds and a season-high five steals as UNLV beat TCU 70-58.
Rougeau, like Collison and Pendergraph, also played at Etiwanda. Kleckner admits it would be neat to see all three of them playing in the NCAA Tournament. So does Rougeau.
"That would be sweet, to be honest," Rougeau said. "It would be a big story back home."
Collison's and Rougeau's teams were in the NCAAs last season, and both appear safe this season. Arizona State has some work to do.
"I really haven't thought about all of us making it," said Pendergraph, who keeps in weekly contact with Collison via cell phone and text messages and occasionally trades e-mails and messages on MySpace with Rougeau. "I'm just worried about us. I'll think about it when we get there.
"If we do, then I'll be talking to Darren, telling him he'll have to tell me how to handle it, show me around."
When it comes to the three of them, Collison has the market cornered on March. When he was a freshman, UCLA played for the national title. The Bruins returned to the Final Four last season. Two Marches, 11 NCAA Tournament games.
That's eight more than Pendergraph and Rougeau have played in, with UNLV reaching the Sweet 16 last season.
Fortunately for them, Collison isn't the type to rub it in.
"Darren is real cool about that stuff," Pendergraph said. "We don't bring up how we do against each other. We compare other games, talk about the rest of the league, who was really tough against them, they did this, this and this.
"I'm not going to be like that (if Arizona State beats UCLA on Thursday night in Tempe).
"Now if we're in Coach Kleckner's office after the season and we're acting silly, I'd bring it up then. But I wouldn't rub it in. He's kicked my butt the whole time I've been here."
The three of them kicked a whole lot of posterior at Etiwanda. When Collison (15.6 ppg, 5.4 apg, 14.1 ppg, 4.2 apg at UCLA this season) and Pendergraph (9.5 ppg, 10.5 rpg 12.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg at ASU) were juniors and Rougeau (6 ppg, 5 rpg, 8.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg at UNLV) was a senior, the Eagles went 31-3. They beat Jordan Farmar's Los Angeles Taft team in the Southern California regional semifinals, but lost in the final in overtime to Josh Shipp's Los Angeles Fairfax team. Collison, Farmar and Shipp ended up at UCLA.
"We had Darren at the '1' doing his thing, Jeff at the '5' doing his and Rene made everything flow with his willingness to sacrifice and blend in," Kleckner said. "He was the glue on that squad."
By all accounts it was a special group, but it's apparent Kleckner has a soft spot for Rougeau, who wasn't as athletically gifted as his younger counterparts.
"Everybody knows about Darren and Jeff, but Rene was the unsung hero," Kleckner said. "Let me tell you something. He was the 15th man on the team his junior year. He worked so hard in the offseason that his senior year he moved up to sixth man. He grew some and matured physically, but it was his work ethic and time spent on the game even away from the structured work at the high school. He went to the park, the playground, worked out.
"Darren and Jeff get most of the accolades, but Rene was a huge part of that team."
Rougeau was a walk-on at UNLV before earning a scholarship. The same traits he showed Kleckner are the ones that have made him a starter now for the Rebels.
"He's fearless," Kleckner said. "He dives for loose balls, bangs with people bigger than him, plays with intensity, has a feel for the game.
"They had a ton of chemistry on the court. Rene was always playing within himself, knowing that he was an important part of our success without trying to take a lot of credit. He's a coach's dream. We didn't need anything spectacular because we already had that. He fulfilled that perfectly."
The spectacular was Collison. The dependable was Pendergraph. The role player was Rougeau. Their roles aren't that different now. Collison is second on the Bruins in scoring (14 points per game) and leads the team in assists (4.3) and steals (2.0). Pendergraph is second on the Sun Devils in scoring (13.0) and leads them in rebounding (6.8). Rougeau is averaging 8.8 points, 5.4 rebounds and leads the Mountain West Conference in steals at 2.2 per game.
All three are excellent defenders. Collison's strength is his speed and quickness. Rougeau is quick, long and lean. Pendergraph is a big body who knows how to get position on both ends.
Rougeau says Kleckner deserves a lot of the credit for how well the trio has turned out.
"He's a great coach," Rougeau said. "You definitely have to give him all the credit for our success. We're all great defensive players, and that starts with him."
Kleckner doesn't get to see much of Rougeau and Pendergraph other than when their teams are in TV. He sees a lot more of Collison, who plays just up the road and whose parents still live near the high school.
But when they have the time, all of the players stop by Etiwanda.
"They say 'hi' and visit with teachers and staff members," Kleckner said. "They come in the gym and play pickup ball with the kids. It means a lot to our younger kids.
"Rene, Jeff and Darren are all good kids. They all come back and visit here, and they do it with pride. They're family here, and they know it - family for life."
Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and joins Bill King on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:15 a.m. ET.
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