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Overview

Utah State Is a Constant in Season of Transition

November 16, 2000|LON EUBANKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is a season of transition for the Big West Conference.

New Mexico State, Nevada and North Texas dropped out after last season, leaving nine teams. Boise State will be gone after this season, and UC Riverside and Cal State Northridge will join for the 2001-02 season.

But one thing hasn't changed. Utah State appears to be the conference's strongest team again.

The Aggies were 16-0 in the conference during the regular season, then won three more games for the conference tournament title last season. A loss to Connecticut in the first round of the NCAA tournament left the Aggies with a 28-6 record.

Coach Stew Morrill's team returns four starters, including forward Shawn Daniels, a first-team all-conference selection who ranked second in rebounding and tied for the lead in blocked shots. Guards Tony Brown and Bernard Rock also return, along with center Dmitri Jorssen.

"[Utah State] should be good again," Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Coach Jeff Schneider said. "They're a veteran team, and they'll have one of the better players in the league at every position."

Long Beach State is expected to be the Aggies' top threat. The 49ers were 24-6 overall last season and 15-1 in regular-season conference play, losing to Utah State in the teams' only meeting. Mate Milisa, the league's player of the year, is gone, but guards Ramel Lloyd and Ron Johnson return along with forward James Williams. Long Beach also adds 6-foot-8 UCLA transfer Travis Reed.

There will be one division this season after four years of a two-division format, and each team will play all others home and away. Only the last-place team won't get a berth in the postseason tournament to be held at the Anaheim Convention Center.

A look at the teams, excluding Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State and UC Irvine:

BOISE STATE

* Coach: Rod Jensen.

* 1999-2000: 12-15.

* Returning starters: Four.

* Top players: Abe Jackson (16.2 points), Kejun Woods (11.1 points).

* Outlook: The Broncos had their first losing record in 10 years last season, but should be improved. Seven losses were by four points or fewer. Jackson and Woods are solid inside, and Clint Hordemann and C.J. Williams return in the backcourt.

CAL POLY SAN LUIS OBISPO

* Coach: Jeff Schneider.

* 1999-2000: 10-18.

* Returning starters: Three.

* Top players: Chris Bjorklund (19.4 points), Jeremiah Mayes (13.0 points, 7.8 rebounds).

* Outlook: The Mustangs are hoping to capitalize inside with Bjorklund, the conference's leading returning scorer. Forward Brandon Beeson returns after sitting out last season because of a knee injury. The Mustangs also have added talented freshman guard Jamaal Scott from Phoenix.

UC SANTA BARBARA

* Coach: Bob Williams.

* 1999-2000: 14-14.

* Returning starters: Two.

* Top players: Mark Hull (10.3 points), Adama Ndiaye (9.3 points).

* Outlook: Williams expects Ndiaye and Hull to be a key players again. Ndiaye tied for the conference lead in blocked shots per game and ranked fifth in rebounding last season, and Hull showed scoring potential at forward as a freshman. Williams wants senior guard LaRon Bryant to boost his team's three-point shooting. Four freshman are expected to be among the team's top eight players.

IDAHO

* Coach: David Farrar.

* 1999-2000: 12-17.

* Returning starters: None.

* Top player: Matt Gershefske (6.7 points).

* Outlook: The Vandals lost all five senior starters, and have only three players returning with much experience. Senior guard Adam Miller returns along with junior forward Nate Watson. Farrar brought in four community college players to rebuild.

PACIFIC

* Coach: Bob Thomason.

* 1999-2000: 11-18.

* Returning starters: Four.

* Top players: Mike Preston (9.1 points), Peter Heizer (8.6 points).

* Outlook: Thomason begins his 13th season at Pacific hoping for more firepower from outside. The Tigers ranked 11th among 12 teams last year in scoring with an average of 62.4 points. Heizer is the only senior on the team.

UTAH STATE

* Coach: Stew Morrill.

* 1999-2000: 28-6.

* Returning starters: Four.

* Top players: Shawn Daniels (12.0 points, 7.9 rebounds), Tony Brown (11.6 points).

* Outlook: Daniels, the co-most valuable player in the conference tournament, leads a team that emphasizes balance on offense and solid defense. Last season the Aggies gave up an average of only 61.2 points, which was the best in the conference and ranked among the leaders nationally.

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