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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Bruins Go After Best of Big West

East Regional: Utah State is not intimidated after seeing UCLA against others in the conference.

March 17, 2001|SAM FARMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Utah State's starting five sat at a long table during a media session Friday and answered questions about today's game against UCLA.

"Were any of you recruited by the Bruins?" a reporter asked.

Silence. Then smiles. Finally, point guard Bernard Rock leaned closer to his microphone.

"I got a letter for football," he said.

A few minutes later, in the Aggies' locker room, reserve guard Dion Bailey said he took a recruiting trip to UCLA during his senior year at West Covina High. He loved the campus. He envisioned himself in powder blue.

It would have meant so much more if UCLA had known about the visit.

"My mom hooked it up," he said.

Is it any wonder, then, why these scrappy kids from the Big West Conference are itching to prove they belong with some of the best teams in the country? Can anyone question their motivation? Certainly not Bruin point guard Earl Watson, who long has been fueled by the notion that every major program but UCLA ignored him.

"I know exactly how they feel and their mentality," he said. "It inspires you. It brings out the best in you. We were the players that were overlooked. That just drives you."

Neither team will be groping for motivation today. The Bruins are one victory away from their fourth Sweet 16 in five seasons. The Aggies haven't advanced past the second round since 1970.

"We feel pretty confident," said Rock, a Jerry Rice look-alike from New York who steered his team to a 77-68 overtime upset of fifth-seeded Ohio State. "Basketball is basketball, no matter who you're playing. Two schools in our conference played UCLA this season [UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara] and played them tight. If we stick to our game plan, we have a good chance to win."

Utah State prides itself on its airtight defense. The Aggies gave up an average of 58.6 points a game this season, sixth in the nation, and limited opponents to 39.5% shooting (12th).

Bruin Coach Steve Lavin said the Aggies are a tougher matchup for UCLA than Ohio State would have been. That's partly because of the defensive problems they present.

From what UCLA coaches gathered from watching the Utah State-Ohio State game, the Aggies rely on man-to-man defense on missed shots; use a 1-2-2 halfcourt trap, then back to a 2-3 zone on made baskets or dead-ball situations.

"We'll have to make some adjustments and try to attack that," said UCLA assistant coach Jim Saia, who oversees the offense. "Ohio State didn't attack it. They were just happy to get the ball across halfcourt."

To counter that, the Bruins will try to "overload" areas at the offensive end, forcing a single defender to choose between two players. They will rely on passing to find open shots. They can rotate the ball quicker that way.

Eight of Utah State's 15 players are junior college transfers, and it isn't always so easy to sell those players on the importance of defense. That could be the crowning achievement of Coach Stew Morrill.

"Defense was not a big thing in junior college, just a lot of running up and down the floor," forward Shawn Daniels said. "At Utah State, defense comes first and offense comes later. One player doesn't get the ball that much on this level, especially with our team, which has such balanced scoring."

Daniels, a transfer from Bakersfield College, has one of the team's more interesting stories. He's listed at 6 feet 6, 260 pounds, but he appears even bigger than that. He looks closer to an offensive lineman than a basketball player, and that's after he shed 25 pounds in the past year. Sticking to a low-fat diet has been challenging.

"He has a sense of smell with cookies," said Bailey, his roommate the last two years. "Every time we go in the grocery store he wants to get them, which is cool. As long as we can joke about it, it's all fun and games. We're just like brothers."

There's a definite family feel to the Aggies--from Harlem's Rock to 7-foot center Dimitri Jorssen, who grew up in Belgium--especially when they are espousing the virtues of defense. Morrill recently got a chuckle when he overheard one of his players tell a recruit: "Man, if you don't D it up, you ain't out there."

"They learn in a real hurry that defensive mistakes will cost you minutes," Morrill said. "But a kid's got to buy into that too."

Never did the Aggies buy into it more than in their conference tournament. In the semifinal game against Boise State, they held the Broncos scoreless--scoreless--for the final 12 minutes of a 67-48 victory.

That's as tough as holding your breath for 12 minutes, right?

"Yeah, and kind of the same results happen," Daniels said. "You're going to die."

*

TODAY'S GAME

UCLA

vs. UTAH

STATE

EAST REGIONAL

Greensboro, N.C.

12:30 p.m. PST

Channel 2

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