Riding a 19-game league win streak and coming off the winningest season in school history, the 2000-2001 Utah State basketball team, with four of five starters and the top three reserves back, felt enormous pressure to do it again.

"This year, the biggest opponent we played was called 'Expectations,' " says Aggie coach Stew Morrill.

That these Aggies met those expectations — and in many ways exceeded them — and that they did it the right way — unselfish and coachable with all five seniors about to graduate on time — well, that's special.

That is what Morrill will remember the most as he hangs this team's picture "front and center" on his wall, and when he gazes at that picture years from now. "What stands out most for me is the coachability of this group," he says. "They bought in so much to what we tried to do. I'm just tickled for all of us, especially the players, with the way it turned out."

Last Thursday's win in faraway Greensboro, N.C., over nationally ranked Ohio State, seeded fifth in the East Regional, will long be savored as well. It's Morrill's first NCAA Tournament win in a 15-year head-coaching career and the school's first in 31 years.

"I know they feel great satisfaction," Morrill says of his players for a season well done. "We all wish we would have made a few more shots against UCLA (75-50 USU loss in the NCAA second round Saturday), but after about 24 hours, that fades and you're able to look at the big picture. And the big picture is pretty good."

Morrill calls it "a very special memory" for himself and the players that they came back from their three February league losses to win their next six games.

Seniors Dion Bailey, Curtis Bobb, Shawn Daniels, Dimitri Jorssen and Bernard Rock will graduate knowing they've been a big part of the most successful two-year run in USU history — back-to-back 28-6 seasons with consecutive Big West Tournament titles and NCAA appearances, including that 77-68 win over a Buckeye team that was third in the Big Ten and beat Michigan State and Illinois, two of the NCAA's four No. 1 seeds.

"Those five guys have laid a pretty good foundation," says Morrill, who told Tuesday's school pep rally attendees that it's a tough legacy for next season's group.

"Reality is probably about to set in next year," he said. "But right now, I'm not going to worry about next year too much."

The staff is already at work on next season, assistants out recruiting, but maybe for the first time, Morrill will heed friends' advice "to stop to smell the roses and reflect. I'm going to try and do that a little this spring," he says.

This team gave him the right to do that.

Last season's lone senior, Troy Rolle, and this season's graduating five, along with Tony Brown, Brennan Ray, Jeremy Vague, Thomas Vincent, Toraino Johnson, Chad Evans, Jason Napier and Dan Stewart (who played last season but redshirted this one), painted a real two-year masterpiece.

They made the first USU back-to-back NCAA appearances since 1969-70, winning a game for the first time since then. Their consecutive 28-win seasons are tied for the school record, and the 19-game win streak in Big West play last season grew to 26 straight wins this season until regular-season league champion Irvine finally got them. It's the Big West's second-longest league win streak to UNLV's 40 in the early '90s.

As of Tuesday, USU's 28 wins this season were third-most in the country, and the 56 wins in the two-season period are fourth in the country behind Duke's 60, Michigan State's 58 and Iowa State's 57. The 23-game home-win streak is the nation's fourth-best current mark.

The Aggies went into last week's NCAAs with the best points-allowed mark (56.8) in the country. Their field-goal percentage defense (38.7) was sixth-best, and their shooting percentage (49.7) seventh best. Their winning percentage (.844) was eighth-best, and they were sixth in scoring margin (+14.4). Their final points-allowed figure, 57.4, is a school record (records only go back through 1957-58).

School records for assists (511), 3-pointers made (200) and best season start (23-3) were set, and Daniels in his two seasons set school records for blocked shots with 58 last season and 59 this season. His career average (1.72 a game) is a school record.

Next season, Brown moves to second place on the Aggie career list with two more 3-pointers, and he has 1,101 career points. Ray, Vague, Johnson, Evans and Vincent figure to play more, and redshirts Stewart, Mike Stowell and Calvin Brown will be available. Spencer Nelson returns from an LDS mission.

Several signees are expected to come in with flourish. Junior-college point guard Ronnie Ross and California juco all-state forwards Desmond Penigar and Mike Ahmad could start if their games translate to Division I, and Morrill says Sky View forward Nate Harris "might have been as good as there was in the state." Coaches are still in the market for a swing-type perimeter player but don't have to sign one.

And even though he worries about trying again to live up to another 28-6 season, Morrill says he feels "pretty dang positive" about the state of Utah State basketball.


E-mail: lham@desnews.com