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USU: Who are you?

Aggies battle UCLA today

GREENSBORO, N.C. — The questions keep coming for Utah State's suddenly hip basketball team. Who are you? Why are you in Logan? What is Logan like? Why would you want to go to school there or coach there?

The national press is finding out about these 28-5 Aggies. The media are curious as can be about the big kid from Belgium, the little guy from New York, how Shawn Daniels throws his considerable bulk to his advantage in games, why Dimitri Jorssen is nicknamed "Meat" instead of the beefy Daniels (it just sounds like the middle syllable of his first name) and why the masses don't know Stew Morrill, who seeks his 290th win as a head coach today as the Aggies meet 22-8, fourth-seeded UCLA in an NCAA second-round game.

Tip-off for this game will be 30 minutes after the conclusion of the 11:10 a.m. MST game between Duke and Missouri at Greensboro Coliseum, here in the heart of basketball country just a stone's throw from Chapel Hill.

Winning Thursday's first-round game 77-68 against fifth-seeded Ohio State (20-11) thrust the Aggies into the spotlight. There was a huge picture of Tony Brown and Curtis Bobb on the front page of USA Today's regional issue after Brown hit the shot that sent Thursday's game into overtime and got national reporters seeking scraps of information about Brown, Bobb, Jorssen, Daniels and Morrill.

UCLA has a better idea of who the Aggies are, even if the two schools haven't played since 1976-77, an 88-68 Bruin win in Pauley.

The Bruins gave 29-2 Stanford its only home loss, and Morrill coached with Cardinal mentor Mike Montgomery and employs some of his system. The Bruins also beat U.C. Santa Barbara by only 6 and U.C. Irvine by 5, so they know the Big West Conference has some substance, though those games were early in the season when the Bruins were learning who they were.

They are not the Bruins that most people think of — the "pivot-pass-jack, first-team-to-100 style of play" — said coach Steve Lavin, who makes them sound more like the Aggies' blood brothers than the marquee name that they are.

While Morrill tortures himself wondering "how in the world we can compete with UCLA," with its vaunted press, size, speed, big bodies and Pac 10 coach of the year, Lavin called the Bruins a "well-knit, blue-collar team, not the traditional UCLA team with blazing speed. We know how to win down the stretch," Lavin said of the now-familiar sudden spurts the Bruins use to make the kill. The keys to his team are chemistry and hard work.

The Aggies are cut of similar cloth, though no UCLAs ever came recruiting them. Lavin says often those are the kind of players who can bite a big program like his. "There are no more David-and-Goliath stories in college basketball. If you make the field of 65, you can play," he says, sounding sincere in voicing hope that UCLA's schedule that included run-n-gun, slow-it-down and pressing teams prepared the Bruins for USU's changing defenses, ball control and speed from Rock, Bobb and Dion Bailey.

Even if Lavin and the Bruins don't really believe the disciplined Aggies will give them trouble, they talk like they believe it — in itself a credit to USU that UCLA doesn't seem to want to give Morrill any bulletin-board material. "He has paid his dues and earned his stripes," Lavin said of Morrill. "He is old-school, and his team reflects his personality by doing it through hard work and intelligence. Utah State is probably as well-coached a team as we've faced all year," Lavin says. He'd rather have met Ohio State today because the Ags present tougher matchup problems, he said.

The Ags express confidence and concern. "Basketball is basketball, no matter who you are playing," Rock said. "If we stick to our game plan, we have a good chance to win."

"Once we get past their press," says Brown, I feel that we have a lot of stuff offensively for them to contend with. We do a lot of different things out of different sets. If we run out stuff hard and crisp, we should get some good looks." Brown doubts that the Bruins could learn all of USU's complicated offensive tactics in just a day.

Jorssen isn't sure how he can cope with 6-foot-11 Dan Gadzuric of The Netherlands. Jorssen has never played the stronger, more athletic Dutchman. "He's really strong and stays on balance so well. It's going to be a war," Jorssen said. "I need to get him off the block as much as possible." But that's not Jorssen's strong suit. He also must run hard because Gadzuric is quick in transition.

Coping with forward Jason Kapono (17.3 scoring average), guard Earl Watson (14.6), forward Matt Barnes (11.8) and Gadzuric (11.6 points, 8.4 rebounds) will likely have to be a well-coordinated team deal. Jorssen has hope that USU's 50 defensive plays will somehow hold the answer to keeping this tremendous two-year Aggie run (56-11 record) alive.


E-mail: lham@desnews.com