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March madness: Aggies have 'veteran' attitude: quiet, hopeful

Last year at about this time, the seeding-party room at the Logan Country Club was loud with boisterous Aggies. "There was a lot of whoopin' and hollerin'," recalls Utah State basketball coach Stew Morrill.

On Sunday, when it was announced via ESPN-TV's NCAA Selection Show that the 27-5 Aggies — who won the right to return to the NCAA Tournament with Saturday's late-night 50-38 win over Pacific in the Big West Tournament championship game — would again head east, this time to North Carolina, for the Big Dance, there was a lot of quiet.

The main Aggie players are NCAA veterans now, and on Sunday they acted the part.

"This year, it was just kind of matter-of-fact, 'OK, this is where we're going,' " said Morrill, who wishes, along with his team, that USU had been sent to Boise or San Diego, so their fans could afford to follow them. He admitted that his first thought upon learning USU's assignment was about the travel logistics.

But, when you're still playing at this time of year," says Morrill, "it's all good."

The bracket that sends the Aggies to Greensboro, N.C., to meet No. 5-seed Ohio State (20-10, 11-5/third in the Big Ten) on Thursday was the first one shown on TV, coming up so quickly there was no suspense at all.

"We didn't have to wait too long to find out," said Aggie senior Shawn Daniels. "It would have been nice to have had a little suspense," he said. "We'll take it and make the best of it. It will be nice for us. I've never been to North Carolina."

"We're a little disappointed on getting a 12th seed again," said Aggie senior Bernard Rock. That 12th seed this season, though, is right about where the Aggies were expected to be, considering a weaker schedule this season than they had last year, when their RPI going into the tournament reached No. 28. They had a good right to be indignant then. Now, the RPI is No. 59.

"It's a plus on our part that we don't play the defending champion (again)," said Rock. "That gives us a better chance to get a victory." Last year, USU met 1999 NCAA champ Connecticut and lost by eight in the first round at Birmingham, Ala.

USU hasn't won an NCAA Tournament game since 1970 and is making its first back-to-back appearances since 1979 and '80. It's the first Big West team to make consecutive NCAA berths since New Mexico State did it in 1993 and '94.

Most of the Aggie regulars — Daniels, Rock, Dion Bailey, Tony Brown, Curtis Bobb, Dimitri Jorssen, Brennan Ray — played against UConn last year and consider themselves somewhat experienced.

The goal is higher now — to at least win a game or two. "But we're not going to put that pressure on us," said Bobb, remembering that the Ags were too tight last year. "When we got into the flow, it was too late."

"We're a little bit more mature," says Rock, who thinks that should help the Ags travel at their own pace. The biggest thing he learned in 2000 was "not to rush. We were moving too fast, shooting quick shots." He calls this chance "sweeter because a lot of people didn't think we could do it again."

"I'm a little more calm. Last year, I was really pumped up," says Daniels. "We'll go in a lot more relaxed than last year. We know what to expect and can tell the new guys. It's a great opportunity," said Daniels. "A lot of kids don't get a chance to go once. We'll focus in and try to win one."

"You never know until you play," said Morrill, "but I think the whole process was kind of overwhelming last year in terms of all the coverage and all the media, and television takes over when you get to the NCAA tournament. They tell you everything you're doing. I think we'll have seen it and hopefully be better able to deal with it."


E-MAIL: lham@desnews.com