Utah State coach Larry Eustachy has never been one of those coaches who gets too excited about his team before the season starts. Usually he downplays his chances and waits to see how his team performs later on.
So when Eustachy says, "I'm optimistic," about the upcoming season, you have to take notice.The Aggies begin practice this afternoon and later will hold an early version of "Midnight Madness" on at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. Approximately 30 minutes after the conclusion of the Utah State-New Mexico State football game, the Aggies will host a night of slam dunks, 3-point shooting contests as well as a scrimmage, which will begin around 11:15.
Coming on the heels of 20-9, 18-15 and 21-8 seasons, Eustachy isn't predicting a league championship or an NCAA berth for the first time in a decade. He figures preseason predictions that put his team third in the east division are about right. He bases his optimism on the fact that his team has some experience for a change.
"It's the most returning players we've ever had," he said. "We have good players coming back, but it's still unknown about the new guys."
Three starters return, including all-Big West player Marcus Saxon, a 6-2 guard who averaged 13.2 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game. The other returnees are a couple of 6-3 players: guard Justin Jones (7.4 ppg) and forward Kevin Rice (10.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg).
Other returnees include guard Neal Geddes, who pulled out of a redshirt year in mid-February to help a depleted team, and Dave Issacson, a 6-7 senior who played at Davis High School and Ricks JC. Issacson made great strides since last season and could see a lot of playing time.
Three other returning squadmen are swingman Charles Brady, 6-5 redshirt Mark Thurston and 6-9 Michael Jones, who played one game before getting a medical hardship. The rest of the team consists of those unknown "new guys."
Perhaps the most talented newcomer is Donnie Johnson, a 6-7 240-pounder from Pearl River JC. Johnson originally signed with Alabama out of high school and last year had to sit out and wasn't able to practice with the Ags. He averaged 24.2 points and 14.4 rebounds in junior college.
Brandon Birch, who played for state champion Sky View in 1993, is back from an LDS mission, and the 6-8 210-pounder will be utilized, although it may take awhile for the rust to wear off after being away for two years.
A couple of big bodies that should be factors for the Aggies are Pharoah Davis, a 6-7 235-pounder from Palmdale, Calif., and 6-9 230-pound Ben Rogers, who prepped in Germany before playing at Coastal Georgia JC. Marcel Davis is a 6-7, 215-pounder from Monterrey Peninsula JC.
Transfer guards include Tyrone Allick, Rashad Elliott, Rick Randall and Troy Rolle, but with an abundance of senior guards, some of them will likely be redshirted.
The Aggies have the most formidable schedule in Eustachy's tenure with games at Wyoming and Colorado State, a preseason NIT opener against Final Four participant Minnesota as well as the usual in-state games with Utah, BYU and Weber State.