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USU opens tough part of season at Cal Irvine

The Aggies start the toughest part of their season Thursday night when they open a four-game road trip at Cal Irvine's waterlogged Bren Events Center at 8 MST. They continue at Nevada Saturday night, stop at home for a few days, then go to Idaho and Boise State.

It's tough, but there's a big reward halfway through this four-game stint, if Utah State is willing to work as hard as it's proved it can.The Aggies, who at 19-5, 9-1 lead the entire league, can clinch a berth in the Big West Conference tournament next month if they win both games this weekend. Pacific (15-8, 8-2), leading the Western Division, is the only other conference team that close to clinching.

Irvine (7-13, 4-6) is in almost the opposite position. It's among a three-way tie for second place in the West behind Pacific, but at the same time, this team that has lost five of its last six games and three straight is still fighting for the right to make the conference tournament field.

Even though the weaker Western Division teams benefit because Cal Poly is ineligible for the BWC tournament, leaving just five teams seeking four tourney berths, Irvine is just a game above last-place Fullerton, and the Titans beat Irvine in the Bren Center last week. Irvine plays at Fullerton Saturday.

There were indications in the Aggies' Wednesday night practice at the now-moldy-and-dank Bren Center, where MTV stages its Rock 'n' Jock basketball competitions, that USU players are focused on the task at hand. Coach Larry Eustachy actually ended practice 40 minutes earlier than he'd said he would, apparently rewarding a good effort, although all the fans placed around the arena floor trying to dry it out after it had been flooded recently with several inches of El Nino rainwater could have helped his decision.

Two weeks ago in New Mexico, Eustachy made the Ags run lines for hours because their concentration and efforts were poor. They lost at New Mexico State the next night, breaking a seven-game win streak. Since then, they've played pretty well, especially 6-foot-6 center Donnie Johnson, who had a career-high 21 points and 12 rebounds last Thursday in the 22-point win over Nevada and 18 points, six rebounds Saturday in a 25-point win over Fullerton, both in Logan.

This is the first time USU has played four straight away from home since 1989. The Ags have won four of their last five road games and are 4-5 overall on the road.

Irvine is 6-6 at home under new coach Pat Douglass, who took over for the fired Rod Baker.