LARAMIE, Wyo. — Creon Dorsey, Anthony Watson and John Martens have felt a bit nostalgic this week, but they could reminisce only among themselves.
Remember the way San Diego State ran past New Mexico and shocked Texas-El Paso to win the Western Athletic Conference tournament in El Paso last March.
Dorsey, Watson and Martens sure do. They went to the NCAA tournament while most of their current teammates were playing in state high school tournaments.
"The new guys are constantly asking me if the tournament will really be that intense," Dorsey said.
Last year, a veteran Aztec team defeated every conference opponent during the regular season and finished second in the WAC with an 11-5 mark.
"We were thinking rings and watches when we went to El Paso," Dorsey said. "We knew we had a chance to win and people were looking to beat us. It was a great feeling."
Quite a different feeling permeates this year's team. The Aztecs are 9-18 and finished sixth in the WAC with a 7-9 record.
However, since eight of the nine teams in the WAC qualify for the conference postseason tournament, the Aztecs find themselves facing Utah at 11:30 a.m. PST (KSDO-1130, delayed broadcast at 6:30 p.m.) today in a first-round game at Arena Auditorium on the University of Wyoming campus.
"Last year, I knew we were going to get it," Watson said. "We just weren't going to be denied. It's just the opposite feeling this year."
There aren't Leonard Allen, Michael Kennedy and Andre Ross to dominate the front line or Jeff Konek to come off the bench. And it certainly didn't help when junior center Gerald Murray suffered a fractured right kneecap and was sidelined for the season, or when senior guard Bobby Owens quit after the Feb. 8 game.
The Aztecs have played 27 games and they are still trying to blend into a cohesive unit.
"Last year we were more of a team," Martens said. "People were concerned about making that extra pass. We were a lot closer. There is not as much team unity as last year."
There also are fewer players capable of taking control down the stretch.
The Aztecs were 5-3 in games decided by fewer than five points last year. This year, they're 3-8 in those games and 0-4 in overtime games.
SDSU has seven freshmen and four seniors on its roster for today's game. Seven freshman on an NCAA Division I team?
"Playing in college versus high school is like apples and oranges," Watson said. "To ask a freshman to come in and keep up the level we were at is impossible. We have a lot of 17-, 18- and 19-year-old guys, and it's hard for them to picture winning a tournament."
Or even playing in a tournament.
Actually, the atmosphere at this morning's game against Utah will probably resemble a SDSU home game more than a conference tournament game. The Aztecs' average 2,700 at home.
"With the type of crowd we'll get," said SDSU Coach Smokey Gaines, "we could probably play the game in a telephone booth."
Added Watson: "We're used to that kind of crowd. You know it won't hurt us."
The altitude, which is 7,200 feet above sea level, might hurt the Aztecs. SDSU is 1-7 in Laramie and 1-3 in the Arena Auditorium.
"It (the altitude) is bad," Watson said. "You can't breathe there."
In an effort to acclimate to the altitude, the Aztecs ran two miles in San Diego Monday and practiced in Laramie Wednesday evening.
Their next obstacle is Utah, which tied Wyoming and UTEP for the conference title with a 12-4 mark, but finished third after a tiebreaker formula was implemented. The Utes (20-9) have won eight straight.
SDSU lost two close games to Utah during the regular season. On Jan. 10 in Salt Lake City, the Aztecs let a six-point lead slip away in the final six minutes and lost, 93-89, in overtime. In the rematch, Utah forward Jerry Stroman made two free throws with four seconds remaining to give the Utes a 59-58 victory in San Diego.
"Both times we gave the game away," Martens said.
For the Aztecs to avoid losing three games in a season to the same team for the first time, the consensus is that they will have to stop Stroman and the Utes' quick backcourt of Manuel Hendrix and Kelvin Upshaw.
Stroman averaged 17.7 points and 5.1 rebounds a game, Hendrix averaged 15.8 points and Upshaw 11.7.
"They run a lot and penetrate well," said Dorsey, who is expected to start despite an inflamed right knee.
Utah Coach Lynn Archibald said the key to beating SDSU is containing Watson, Martens and center Steffond Johnson. Watson scored a team-high 30 and 21 points in SDSU's games against Utah. "San Diego State is a good basketball team," Archibald said. "They could have a much better record. Last year, they won the close games."
This year, Utah won the close games.
"Our seniors are a lot more consistent this season," Archibald said.
Archibald voted for Gaines as the WAC Coach of the Year last season, and Gaines won. This season, Gaines said he voted for Archibald as WAC Coach of the Year. The winner will be announced after the tournament.
"Entering the tournament," Gaines said, "there are about four teams who are playing better than San Diego State. They are BYU, Wyoming, UTEP and Utah. Last year, we knew we could beat the favored team, which was UTEP. This year, it's a little different."