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For openers, Ags hope to tame Tigers

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In Larry Eustachy's four seasons as Utah State coach, his teams - some of them after being awful in the preseason - have opened Big West Conference play with a bang.

Last season's Aggies won their first six league games. In 1995-96, USU split a conference-opening trip to UNLV and Nevada and started 3-1. In '94-95, the Ags started 6-0. Even in Eustachy's first and worst season, '93-94, USU opened the Big West at home beating Pacific and San Jose State to stand 2-0.The Aggies did well in BWC home openers under Kohn Smith, too; they haven't lost a home league opener since 1988.

But tonight at 7 in USU's Smith Spectrum, the always-worried Eustachy will be extra nervous as the Aggies put their 17-game home-win streak on the line. The opponent is defending conference champion and Western Division favorite Pacific. The Tigers have beaten USU three straight times, including last year's Big West Tourney title game.

If USU (9-4) starts this BWC season with a win, it will be a true coup. Eustachy isn't at all comfortable "because we play the third-best team on our schedule, and Long Beach (Saturday's Spectrum visitor) can beat you."

UOP is 8-6, with its three-game losing streak coming in road games at ninth-ranked Stanford, at Baylor in OT and at Illinois State. It beat Wisconsin in Hawaii and No. 21 Fresno State in Stockton, Calif.

Besides returning three starters from its NCAA-tourney qualifier, UOP also boasts 3-point king Adam Jacobsen, a career 38 percent 3-point shooter who sat out all but two games last season after tearing the medial collateral and spraining the anterior cruciate ligaments in his left knee.

Also back is ever-improving 7-foot-1 center Michael Olowokandi, a Blue Ribbon magazine preseason All-America honorable mention, along with Tiger senior Corey Anders.

"The Kandi Man," who hails from London, one day walked into coach Bob Thomason's office and said he'd like to play more than the recreational-variety basketball that had been his only experience. He leads the Big West in rebounds (10.3), blocked shots (2.0) and field goal percentage (.661) and is second in scoring (20.1).

"The 7-footer from Colorado State was no factor," said Eustachy of the Rams' center who blocked six blocks in Utah State's loss at CSU Saturday. "But this guy will be. He's maybe a (NBA draft) lottery pick. He's in on every play, and if he gets the ball in the lane area, he's going to make a basket."

Saying he has "a plan" to counter Olowokandi, Eustachy may be more than joking when he says the Aggies have used "a big broom in practice" to simulate his presence. "I really have thought about doing that." he added. "If he fell off the bus coming into the gym, (Pacific) would still be a very good team."

Rugged 6-10 Aggie killer Rayne Mahaffey, who scored 15 and 16 points in two games against the Aggies last year, spells Olowokandi. "We make him lick his chops when he sees us," Eustachy said.

Forward Jason Williams and guard Earl Clark are the new starters, with Bill Walton on the bench - but it's not Jazz-favorite Bill "Oh, no!" Walton of NBA/TV fame.

USU was picked to finish second to New Mexico State (10-4) in the BWC Eastern Division. The Southern Aggies have the league's best RPI (No. 26 this week), and the Northern Aggies are second-best (61st). The four teams to which USU lost (Florida State, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado State) have a combined 45-5 record. With its losing streak, UOP dropped to 110 on the scale that rates strength-of-opponents and game locales.

USU's Justin Jones (.571) and Marcus Saxon (.511) top BWC 3-point accuracy. Saxon (.497) is sixth in field-goal percentage and ninth (17.7) with Kevin Rice (14.0) 14th in scoring.

Eustachy's Mighty-Mite team - which starts no player taller than 6-6 center Donnie Johnson - is vulnerable to any decent big man, but it has outrebounded 12 of 13 opponents for a 9.3 rebound advantage. Johnson and 6-5 Pharoah Davis have combined for averages of 18.1 points and 14.1 rebounds in their first NCAA seasons. Johnson is fourth in BWC rebounds at 8.0.

Expect 6-7 senior forward Dave Isaacson to play some, maybe even start tonight. He's been out since breaking a foot on Thanksgiving Day.

Borrowing from Miami Heat coach Pat Riley, Eustachy has his assistants break down from the game videos each error in 18 areas, which could be as small as getting only one hand on a rebound. He says USU could have 300 such mistakes vs. Simon Fraser and still win but can't have more than 200 against good teams (231 at CSU).