ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On their way here Wednesday, some of the San Diego State basketball players joked about how many victories the Aztecs need to reach the Final Four.
When a team that lost 17 straight games wins three of four, its younger players can be excused if they become a little slap-happy.
The eighth-seeded Aztecs are as loose and relaxed as they are long shots going into tonight's Western Athletic Conference tournament first-round game against top-seeded Texas El Paso.
The Aztecs (2-14, 5-24) will face UTEP (13-3, 23-5) at 8 PST (KSDO-1130) at the University of New Mexico. The Miners were the WAC regular-season champions and defeated the Aztecs twice, by 77-58 and 79-73, during the regular season.
SDSU tied Hawaii for eighth place but qualified for the tournament by defeating the Rainbows, 93-90, Tuesday night in the San Diego Sports Arena.
"We definitely have nothing to lose against UTEP," said Tony Ross, an Aztec freshman guard. "We're going to go in and play loose. . . .
"If we play like we have the last five games and they have some lapses, we could beat them. But we have to play an error-free game to beat them."
SDSU committed 23 turnovers and squandered a 16-point lead against Hawaii. Also, the Aztecs are 0-12 on the road this season. Still, they believe in themselves.
"I think we can beat UTEP as long as we handle their inside game and play good defense and shoot well and rebound with them," SDSU guard Josh Lowery said.
Before they won two straight games and three of four, the Aztecs weren't talking about beating anyone. Now the players say their attitude is the best it has been this season. They say the turnaround came when Coach Smokey Gaines announced his resignation Feb. 6; they say the news had a strong effect on the players. The team has gone 3-3 since.
"The attitude was that we'd just finish out the season and get it over with," said Gerald Murray, a senior center. "The resignation of Coach Gaines shook some people up. . . . We decided we had to play hard. And we had to try to have some fun the rest of the way. That's what we've been doing."
"Since Smokey's decision a lot of guys have loosened up more," Lowery said. "It just seemed different. Good different. There has been a lot more intensity. We were flat and not in a lot of games earlier in the year."
Gaines said it was just a matter of time before his team started playing better.
"It's a young team," he said. "It takes time for the kids to come around. I was just hoping we could have come together earlier."
Forwards Rodney Hawkins and Juan Espinoza--both community college transfers--had their best games this week. Hawkins scored a career-high 21 points against Utah, and Espinoza had a career-high 19 points against Hawaii. Lowery is becoming more comfortable at point guard, and Murray has been more of a force inside recently.
"A lot of guys have accepted their roles in the past few games," Lowery said. "Early in the year, positions weren't defined. . . . And we had so many problems. Guys wanting to transfer, guys quitting. Something would always pull the team apart.
"Now it's going in the right direction. But we still have a ways to go before we're a team like UTEP."