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Attention, Please

Utah State has been successful for years, but most of nation is just now noticing

March 11, 2004|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

Utah State knows that dominating the Big West Conference in college basketball doesn't get you on ESPN. Being in the national rankings for the first time since 1971, now that's news.

The Aggies have spent four weeks in the Associated Press poll this season, including a No. 22 ranking this week.

"One of the first things I do when I get in my office on Monday is I get on the Internet and see where we're ranked," said Doug Thompson, mayor of the scenic Cache Valley college town of Logan. "On game day, if you don't wear blue, people are asking 'Why not?'

"It's the first topic of conversation when you meet somebody, whether it's McDonald's or church."

Utah State's 25-2 record has brought a spotlight that years of success never did, even within its own state. The Aggies have played in the NCAA tournament in four of the last six years but are usually in the shadows of in-state rivals Utah and Brigham Young. They are also the first ranked Big West team since New Mexico State in 1994.

"It is a little ironic in a way," said Stew Morrill, Utah State's sixth-year coach. "I think we had a couple of teams that could have very easily been ranked. I told the guys to not worry about it and just enjoy this."

Utah State and Pacific tied for the regular-season title with 17-1 league records, but the Aggies are seeded first in the Big West tournament by virtue of a coin flip. Both teams earned automatic byes into tonight's semifinals.

Morrill, 51, won with teams at Montana and Colorado State before coming to Utah State. Despite a constant influx of junior college players, Morrill creates a sense of stability by redshirting many of his recruits. Others, such as 23-year-old junior forward Spencer Nelson, are Mormons who have served two-year church missions and returned to the program stronger and wiser.

All of them must subscribe to the Aggies' philosophy of tough defense, unselfish play and strong fundamentals. They rank second in the nation in field-goal percentage, sixth in scoring defense and 11th in scoring margin.

"They bring in good character guys," sophomore forward Nate Harris said of the coaching staff. "The players know they're going to come in and work hard and do the things we need in order to be successful."

Senior guard Cardell Butler is the team's leading scorer, Harris is its top scoring threat inside and Nelson its leading rebounder and emotional spark.

The group revolves around point guard Mark Brown, a former all-state player at Saddleback College. Brown's passing -- he leads the Big West with 4.9 assists per game -- is contagious on a team that has 118 more assists than its opponents.

"Mark has done an excellent job of being a calming influence with us, especially at the beginning of the season," Nelson said. "He really doesn't have to say anything out there; we know what kind of body language he has, especially at the end of games."

Cal State Northridge Coach Bobby Braswell is also impressed by Brown. "Stew's got to feel good knowing that when everything breaks down, he can make a play for you and get the ball to the right people," Braswell said. "He's the best point guard in this conference by far."

Under Morrill, Utah State has the won two Big West regular-season titles and figures to be in the NCAA tournament for the fifth consecutive year. The Aggies' .804 winning percentage the last five years trails only Duke, Stanford and Gonzaga.

The impressive track record has stirred speculation that the Provo native is the top choice to succeed Rick Majerus at higher-profile Utah, which dealt the Aggies their other loss this season.

Morrill shrugs off the speculation.

"It hasn't been a distraction," he said. "I've been pretty loyal at places I've been. I'm very comfortable here. It would take something pretty special for me to even think [about leaving]."

Despite the glossy record, Utah State has its share of doubters. The Aggies have an RPI of 35, but only seven of their wins have come against teams over .500 and one was against Division II Fort Lewis College.

They figure to be in line for an NCAA at-large bid should they fall in the Big West tournament, but that is no certainty given their perceived lack of schedule strength. The Aggies presented a less-than-overwhelming case in front of a national audience Feb. 28 at UC Irvine, barely avoiding an upset by the under-.500 Anteaters.

Count Braswell among their believers.

"If they're fortunate enough to be the ones that represent our conference in the NCAA tournament, I don't see them as a one-round team," Braswell said. "They're a good team. They are a legitimate top-25 team, and I don't think that's a fluke."

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