PROVO, Utah — Jim Brandenburg had better things to do than spend his time chatting at the Western Athletic Conference basketball media day Monday.
"The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!" Brandenburg said in mock urgency.
Indeed they are. Tonight in the San Diego Sports Arena, Brandenburg will make his coaching debut at San Diego State when the Aztecs play an exhibition game against the Soviet Union national team. Tipoff is set for 7:30.
The game is important enough to Brandenburg that he skipped the preseason conference at Brigham Young University to remain at practice with the Aztecs in San Diego.
"It's important to be with the team at this time," Brandenburg said in a telephone interview from San Diego. "If it's important enough for the players to be here to practice, it's important enough for me to stay in San Diego."
So he sent Charles Bradley, one of his two fulltime assistant coaches, instead. Bradley did the head-coach bit fine, picking up on the theme Brandenburg has been emphasizing for weeks.
"When you come to San Diego," Bradley told the eight other WAC coaches, "don't be too hard on the Aztecs."
The question for tonight is how do you say that in Russian?
The Aztecs are set to face a Soviet team missing two of its top players--centers Arvidas Sabonis and Vladimir Tkachenko are both injured and did not make the trip--but the rest of the squad is essentially the one scheduled to represent the USSR in the Olympics next September in South Korea. That includes Aleksander Volkov, a veteran 6-foot 9-inch forward, and guards Vladas Khomichus (6-2) and Marchulenis Sharunas (6-4).
The Soviets started their trip by losing twice to the Milwaukee Bucks but have since won the first three games of a 10-game college tour that concludes Nov. 24 at Kentucky. They have beaten Illinois State, 71-62; Georgia Tech, 87-78 and North Carolina State, 99-90.
Playing the Soviet team, even under collegiate rules, might not be the best way for Brandenburg to start with a team that was a near-unanimous choice by conference coaches and reporters to finish eighth in the nine-team league.
"I'd like to have another week to get ready," Brandenburg said. "The Soviets are mature and very physical team. It's our 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-year olds against their 30-year-olds."
Brandenburg has done nothing to shield the enormity of his task in taking over the Aztecs, who finished 5-25 overall last season and tied for last in the WAC at 2-14 under Smokey Gaines.
"Let's call it what it is," Brandenburg has said. "This isn't a rebuilding year; it's a major, major reconstruction job. We're just trying to get a foundation."
Only five players return from last season's team. And although four of them are starters, none have played under Brandenburg, who came to SDSU after nine seasons at Wyoming.
Brandenburg has been working since practice began Oct. 15 to blend the holdovers with three community college transfers and three freshman recruits. The results have been sporadic.
"Sometimes we play with great intensity and enthusiasm, and other times we seem lost," Brandenburg said. "The players are trying, but we've been asking a lot of them. There is so much they must learn."
Brandenburg has spent much of this time trying to find what combination of players might serve him best. So far the results look similar to last season's team. Brandenburg said he likely could start the four returning starters--center Gerald Murray, guard Tony Ross and forwards Juan Espinoza and Rodney Hawkins--along with point guard Bryan Williams, a junior transfer from Cerritos College in Norwalk, against the Soviet Union.
But he also said that competition has been tight at several spots. Mitch McMullen, a junior transfer from College of the Canyons in Valencia, has been challenging Murray, who has been slowed for the past week by a stiff neck. Sam Johnson, a junior transfer from Eastern Michigan, is battling Hawkins at power forward. Caldin Rogers, a junior transfer from Ellsworth College in Iowa Falls, Iowa, has been pushing Espinoza at small forward.
The competition at the guards is less complicated, simply because Brandenburg does not have much choice. His only other guard is Ty Walker, junior transfer from Garden City (Kan.) College.
"All the positions are very close," Brandenburg said. "Nothing is final."
Brandenburg said the Aztecs have much to work on before their regular-season opener against Kansas State in the first round of the Sun-Met Classic Nov. 27 at Fresno. Tonight game's will give him an opportunity to see just how far the Aztecs have come in 3 1/2 weeks.
"We've been working hard against each other in practice. It will be good to go against someone else for a change," Brandenburg said. Then, he added with a laugh, "Too bad it has to be the Soviets."
Wyoming was the choice of coaches, media and players to win the WAC championship. The Cowboys topped the coaches poll with 63 points and seven first-place votes. Brigham Young and New Mexico tied for second with 52 points. The Lobos also received a first-place vote. Texas El Paso was picked for fourth (47 points) and received the final first-place vote. Utah (33 points) was fifth followed by Colorado State (31), Air Force (22), San Diego State (16) and Hawaii (8). The media gave Wyoming 196 points and 20 first-place votes. Brigham Young received 160 points and three first-place votes. UTEP was third (134 points), followed by New Mexico (125), Utah (92), Colorado State (77), Air Force (55), SDSU (50) and Hawaii (25).