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AGGIES BEGIN BIG WEST PLAY IN A TOUGH PLACE - FRESNO

SHARE AGGIES BEGIN BIG WEST PLAY IN A TOUGH PLACE - FRESNO

Last Feb. 14, Utah State skipped into Fresno full of hope, riding a three-game win streak, playing as well as it had all season, fresh off its first road win and ready to set the Big West Conference straight on where the Aggies would stand on the way to the league thournament.

Instead, it was 11-0 for Fresno before the Aggies could catch a breath, and the Bulldogs buried USU 107-86 in the Aggies' worst performance of 1990-91.Now it's a new season, the 6-3 Aggies have another three-game win streak, have three road wins and, judging by their 84-72 win over Weber State Monday night, are playing very well.

They open the 1991-92 Big West Conference schedule at - uh-oh - Fresno at 8:30 MST tonight.

USU coach Kohn Smith remembers that awful game at Fresno last year, and he's sure the Bulldogs, with three returning starters (Tod Bernard, Carl Ray Harris and Wilbert Hooker), do, too. "Any time that happens, they'll think, `We can do it again,"' Smith reasons.

The way to keep that in check will be for the Aggies to use their newfound height and inside game to the utmost.

Preseason statistical leader Carlito DaSilva (15.86 points, 9.0 rebounds), a 6-foot-8 junior power forward, is ready to return from the wrenched back that kept him out of the Weber game, and 7-0 freshman Nate Wickizer has improved dramatically his last two games (27 points, 18 rebounds) despite a hip bruise.

The Bulldogs, who finished last season tied for sixth in the BWC, are 9-3 this preseason, probably surprising second-year coach Gary Colson, who thought he'd have a chemistry problem with no established center or point guard.

Hooker has moved to point guard, says Smith, noting there's a slight ballhandling problem, "but he has 12 games under his belt." A freshman (Brian Baumgartner) plays a lot at center.

Colson's philosophy is that defense is boring and uptempo is the way to be. "I just want to outscore you," he says. The Bulldogs have cast up twice as many 3-point shots as have the Aggies, 161-82. Both make 38 percent of long-range shots.

"They're really explosive," says Smith, calling the Bulldogs a run-n-gun team that does a lot of scoring in spurts. USU's perimeter defense and hustle getting back will be important, Smith says.

Fresno was picked to finish third by the media and fourth by the coaches on the Big West preseason polls.

The Aggies were selected to finish seventh on both polls because they have so many possible new starters (DaSilva, Wickizer, point guard Malloy Nesmith and defensive guard Todd Gentry), but those players have fit in nicely with the established stars (Kendall Youngblood, 15.63 points, 6.88 rebounds on average; and Jay Goodman, 14.25 points) and experienced subs (Gary Patterson, Roger Daley, Charlie Sager) to so far justify Smith's faith. He always figured USU would be among the top three or four.

Tonight's game will help establish either Fresno or Utah State as an upper-echelon club, even though it's just the beginning of the Big West season.

The rest of the league opened Thursday, with New Mexico State, UNLV, UC-Santa Barbara and Long Beach winning. New Mexico State (8-1) and UNLV (8-2) were voted 2-1 on both preseason polls. The Rebels opened Jerry Tarkanian's last campaign without a returning starter from the NCAA runner-up team. Santa Barbara had the league's third-best preseason mark, 6-2; the coaches' preseason poll picked the Gauchos to finish third.