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Brandenburg Hoping Aztecs Focus on Game, Not Wyoming Reception

February 27, 1988|CURT HOLBREICH | Times Staff Writer

LARAMIE, Wyo. — Jim Brandenburg returns to Wyoming this afternoon to coach against his former Wyoming team. That is certain.

The mystery is what reaction will stir in the sellout crowd of more than 15,000 at the Arena-Auditorium.

Will they boo? Will they cheer? Will they do a little of both? Will they throw around objects as well as nasty epithets. Or will they give him a standing ovation?

Even Brandenburg is not sure.

"I really don't know," he said. "My guess is that it will be a mixed bag. But I really couldn't tell you what will happen."

The answer will come at 2:05 PST when Brandenburg and his San Diego State Aztecs are introduced to a crowd that is considered the most vocal, most rabid group in the Western Athletic Conference.

Unfortunately for the Aztecs, starting forward Sam Johnson, averaging 6.5 points and 4.7 rebounds, may not get an introduction. He injured his left knee in practice Friday and is questionable for the game.

This is a day that Brandenburg knew he would face when he decided to leave Wyoming last March to rebuild the program at SDSU.

He has said all week that he will not take a special approach, but judging from what happened the first time Brandenburg went up against his old team, the circumstances figure to be a bit more complicated.

The Cowboys, losers of four of their previous six games, were not in the best of moods that night.

Fennis Dembo directed an obscene gesture at the San Diego Sports Arena crowd.

Eric Leckner left the court after the Cowboys escaped with a 57-56 victory, angrily shouting in the direction of the SDSU bench.

And Benny Dees, who replaced Brandenburg as the Cowboys' coach this season, appeared so preoccupied with the plight of his team that he headed to the locker room without shaking Brandenburg's hand.

"We had a lot of disruptions then," Dembo said. "That was a time when a lot of us weren't feeling good about ourselves and how we were playing."

That was four weeks ago, and while time might not heal this wound, it certainly has improved the Cowboys' outward disposition.

At the time of their visit to San Diego, they were a team that was starting to feel the strains of internal strife. Today, they are a team that has won eight of its past nine games and is talking about peaking in time for the WAC and National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournaments.

"We weren't going to let this season get away," Leckner said. "We realized we had to play together. We're doing that, and we're having fun again."

The Cowboys (21-5, 10-5 in conference) are back in the top 20 at No. 16 and are sounding as if the worst of their problems are behind them.

This might not be the best time for Brandenburg to find himself having to face a potentially hostile homecoming. Having coached here for nine seasons, Brandenburg knows just how tough the Wyoming crowd can be on a visiting team. The last time the Aztecs (11-14, 4-9) encountered such a crowd at Texas El Paso two weeks ago, they did not respond well. Some of the players traded taunts with UTEP players and fans.

"We can't get into that this time," Brandenburg said. "We have to focus on the game."

His former players are taking the same approach.

Said Leckner: "It's going to be 'How you doing, Coach Brandenburg. Nice to see you. But once the ball goes in the air, we're going to try to kill you.' When the game starts, we play to win."

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