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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / BIG WEST MEN'S TOURNAMENT

Round Mound of Renown

Daniels, 6-6 and 265, Is Utah State's Main Man in Middle

March 08, 2001|PAUL McLEOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shawn Daniels marches Utah State into the Anaheim Convention Center today, and the Aggies believe they have something to prove.

At 6 feet 6 and 265 pounds, Daniels is Utah State's big man in the middle, one of the country's best percentage shooters and shot-blockers, voted the best defensive player in the Big West Conference.

But Daniels has little to show for all of that. The Aggies (24-5), who play Cal State Fullerton (5-22) at 2:30 p.m. today in the first round of the Big West tournament, failed to repeat as conference champions, finishing two games behind UC Irvine. Once considered a shoo-in for league MVP, Daniels lost out to Irvine guard Jerry Green when the final balloting was released this week.

This weekend, the Aggies have another shot to impress and maybe earn a spot in the NCAA tournament. Daniels figures to be right at the heart of the charge.

"Shawn, in my mind, will always be our player of the year in this conference," Utah State Coach Stew Morrill said. "That's how valuable he has been to us."

Daniels, who grew up in Bakersfield, is sound on the offensive end, averaging 12.1 points and 6.7 rebounds a game. He also led the Big West in blocked shots (49) and has been among the top 10 nationwide all season in field-goal percentage (60.5%).

"He's a kid that doesn't care about stats," Morrill said. "He cares about winning."

It wasn't supposed to be this way this season for Daniels, who was tournament co-most valuable player a year ago when the Aggies went undefeated during the Big West regular season and won the tournament title too.

But Utah State--odds-on favorite to repeat--stumbled in the final weeks of the regular season with losses to Long Beach State and Boise State. They split their regular-season series with UC Irvine.

Now comes the tournament.

"Coach told me earlier in the season that I've got to take advantage of every game I have left," Daniels said.

In the first meeting at Irvine, where early foul trouble sent Daniels and 7-foot teammate Dimitri Jorssen to the bench, Utah State lost, 56-51.

The Aggies got even with Irvine in Logan a week later with a resounding 67-52 victory. That night, Daniels made nine of 10 field-goal attempts, scored 18 points and had eight rebounds, despite a sore hamstring that he injured while lifting weights two days earlier.

Daniels said the key to success for Utah State this week will be avoiding a repeat of what happened at Irvine.

"Not being in foul trouble gives me a chance to play more physical," he said.

Muscle is the name of Daniels' game, opponents say.

"He's a big kid with a soft touch," Cal State Fullerton guard David Castleton said. "He's really good around the basket and he's a load to push around. He's tough with the basketball."

Daniels says he tries to leave his easy-going personality in the locker room.

"I try to play with emotion," he said. "That wears on a team."

Fullerton Coach Donny Daniels said Shawn Daniels, who is no relation, is one of the most consistent--and deceptive--performers in the Big West.

"He makes big plays," Donny Daniels said. "You look at him sometimes and you get the feeling that he's not that good. Then you look at the box score and he has 17 points and 10 rebounds. He's definitely one of the best big men in the conference."

Daniels' shot-blocking ability is just one of the things opponents have to be aware of, Irvine's Green says.

"They rely on him a lot. He's a team leader for Utah State," Green said. "They create a lot of their offense around him. They can dump it down to him and he can shoot it, or he kicks it back out to someone else."

Daniels averaged 24 points and 13 rebounds at Bakersfield Highland High. He went on to Bakersfield College, where he averaged 17.7 points, 11 rebounds and 2.8 blocked shots and was a two-time All-Western State Conference selection.

When Bakersfield Coach Mark Arce left to become an assistant at Utah State at the end of the 1998-99 season, Daniels followed.

"I've just been on good teams with good players," Daniels said. "I want to win and that was a key to choosing my high school. I went to JC with Arce for the same reason."

Morrill said Daniels may have been somewhat overlooked as this season progressed, what with the surprising success of Irvine.

This week, he has a chance to make up for that.

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