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BYU TAKES ON TALL TASK TONIGHT

Both BYU and Louisiana State claim to be teams on missions in this year's NCAA Tournament.

The 25-6 Cougars are trying to prove that they deserve to be higher than a 10th seed, that they are better than the 29th-best team in the country (AP poll), that they can play with a team like LSU.The 20-9, 25th-ranked Tigers are trying to win an NCAA title before Shaquille O'Neal takes his 7-foot-1, 294-pound body to the NBA.

Other than that, there aren't many similarities between these opponents in today's 6 p.m. game of the Western Sub-Regional at the Boise State Pavilion.

LSU is a superstar-oriented team, constantly in the limelight because of O'Neal's presence. BYU is a team without a genuine star, largely ignored by the national media.

LSU has a flamboyant, 20-year coach, Dale Brown, known as much for his outspokenness as his victories. BYU's coach, Roger Reid, has been around three years and isn't exactly a household name in college basketball circles.

Underachiever LSU was expected to be in the Top 5. Overachiever BYU was expected to barely reach the Top 5 - in the WAC.

Despite all that, it looks more and more like this game might be closer than people like Dick Vitale expect. There are reasons why LSU is a team of great, but unrealized, potential; weaknesses that BYU may be able to exploit.

Anyway you look at it, this has to be a more entertaining matchup than, say, Indiana vs. Eastern Illinois.

Here's a few key factors to watch:

ATTITUDE

If the Tigers take BYU too lightly - and there were signs at Wednesday's press conference that they may be doing just that - they could be in trouble. For instance, asked which of the Tigers' opponents BYU most reminded him of, Brown replied, "Vanderbilt would be the closest."

Brown said he meant that as a compliment, because Vanderbilt beat his team, but the fact is, Vanderbilt had just the ninth-best record in the Southeastern Conference and a 15-14 overall mark.

The Cougars, meanwhile, are a little annoyed that most "experts" Have written them off already. "It's not like we're sitting here in awe of them," said BYU guard Mark Heslop. "We've played big-name teams before."

STRATEGY

Both teams say they don't plan to do anything different than they've done all season, and they may even be telling the truth. If so, BYU will do something no team has done all season - try to play O'Neal with no more than a double team.

Reid said his team was willing to concede some points to O'Neal but hoped to hold the other Tigers down.

"I've seen teams put three people around him and he still scores," Reid said. "If he gets 40, that's OK - if we win."

That's the exact opposite of the approach taken by most teams of surrounding O'Neal with defenders.

"They all played the same defense, put four guys on Shaq and let everybody else go," O'Neal said.

O'Neal smiled broadly when he heard of BYU's intentions. Forward Vernel Singleton looked incredulous, then said, "That's a brave approach."

FREE THROWS

This isn't usually a big factor, but foul shooting has proved fatal to LSU several times this season. O'Neal gets to the line a lot but is just a 50-percent free-throw shooter. BYU has a bunch of big guys with a lot of fouls to give, and Reid probably would rather see O'Neal at the line than hanging on the rim.

Reid said he's willing to put O'Neal on the line, "As long as Dale Brown doesn't come out and attack me," jokingly referring to Brown's assault on a Tennessee player who intentionally fouled O'Neal last week.

Incidentally, LSU is 17-1 when it makes more free throws than its opponent.

THE MIDDLE

O'Neal's height and shot-blocking ability can pose problems for teams that haven't faced a big guy and rely solely on an inside game. Reid, however, noted that his center, Gary Trost, practiced against 7-6 Shawn Bradley last year and had some of his best games all season against former New Mexico center Luc Longley, 7-2.

BYU is an inside-outside team - looking into the paint for a shot first, then kicking it back outside if a team collapses. LSU's defenders, however, haven't had to worry so much about collapsing in the middle, knowing that O'Neal is back there.

SHOOTING

Watch the field-goal shooting; these are both good-shooting teams that average nearly 10 percent better than opponents. The difference may be that BYU has won even when it has shot poorly, LSU hasn't. The Tigers are 14-1 when they've shot 50 percent or better, 0-6 when foes shoot 50. LSU is also 0-5 when scoring 69 points or less.

TEMPO

BYU is probably not in a position to play run-and-dunk with the Tigers. Quickness at the LSU quardline and the athleticism of the big guys probably means the Cougars will try to play a little more deliberately.

THE CROWD

Which team will this crowd support? it figures that fans of other teams at this regional will back BYU, on the premise that the Cougars will be an easier future opponent. Besides, said Heslop, "We're the underdog. We're from the West. There's no reason for people in Boise to hate us."

This may not be a factor at all, though, considering how well BYU has played before hostile crowds in two straight WAC tournaments.

GAME NOTES: LSU and BYU will both participate in the Maui Invitational next December . . . Call was left off the All-WAC first team, but he and Wyoming's Reginald Slater were the only WAC players to earn honorable mention All-America status.