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Defending champ USU an underdog at BWC tourney

ANAHEIM, Calif — Being the surprise team of the Big West Conference in 2000 worked well for Utah State's basketball team last season. It ripped through the Big West Tournament just like it had ripped through the regular-season league schedule — undefeated.

Now the 24-5 Aggies will find out what it's like to defend that tournament championship from a little lesser position.

Cal Irvine (24-3) almost duplicated this season what USU did last season, going 15-1 in the conference, losing only at Utah State, and winning all the close games the other teams could throw at the Anteaters.

Now they are the giants of the league, the No. 1 seed, and 13-3 Utah State is the runner-up.

The Aggies open defense of their tourney title Thursday afternoon at 3:30 MST in the Anaheim Convention Center in Game 2 of the 2001 BWC tourney against seventh-seeded Cal Fullerton (5-22, 3-13).

They come in a little more anonymously than they did last year, especially after losing three games in February, including back-to-back losses at Long Beach and Boise State Feb. 17 and 24. The other loss was at Irvine on Feb. 8.

"This year," observes USU coach Stew Morrill, "we're kind of laying in the weeds a little bit, I think.

"Irvine rightfully got a lot of attention going 15-1, and you hear a lot of people talking about an Irvine-Long Beach final, in Southern California, and all those things," Morrill said, perhaps letting on a little of his pre-game motivational speech.

"It's a different scenario, how we ended up not on top and undefeated, but our mindset is to win," adds senior guard Dion Bailey.

The opening game of the tournament, at 1 MST Thursday, pits No. 3 seed Long Beach State (18-12, 10-6) vs. No. 6 Boise State (16-13, 8-8).

USU's game follows, and the winners of the two afternoon games meet in a 7 p.m. MST Friday semifinal. The championship is at 10:30 p.m. MST Saturday, televised by ESPN. Thursday evening's rounds include Irvine playing No. 8 Cal Poly (9-18, 3-13) at 7 and No. 5 UC Santa Barbara (13-14, 9-7 ) meeting No. 6 Pacific (16-11, 8-8) following that. The winners play Friday's late semifinal.

"I really believe our tournament has a lot of teams that could win it," said Morrill. "Any team can get the dice and get hot. There's a number of teams that could win, and we just hope to go in and play good basketball."

With the USU and CSUF records being almost mirror images, most people expect USU to move on to a grudge match Friday with one of the teams that beat the Aggies recently, either Long Beach or Boise State. "You make a mistake if you start worrying about Round 2," said Morrill, whose team has been magnificent over the past two seasons at overlooking no one.

"Fullerton scares me to death," Morrill says, noting the Titans kept it close in Logan by playing a tempo game, "and now they've got an all-league player back (Ike Harmon). They just played Irvine close (58-55 loss last Thursday). They've won (two) of four since they've gotten an all-league player back."

Harmon, a senior who has missed much of the season with multiple injuries, is an explosive perimeter player who hits threes but is strong in the post-up game, too. "He's a reason they've played a lot better," Morrill says. "A lot of those other kids have gotten better, and when you add a guy like that, it makes everybody a little better."

The Titans are coached by ex-Utah assistant Donny Daniels, who says Harmon will be playing in pain but can't further damage a bad foot. He's averaged 25 minutes a game since he came back, and, with this possibly his last collegiate game since the loser is eliminated, "He'll probably play 40 minutes," Daniels said. "He's excited about playing."

Utah State's Daniels, named conference defensive player of the year on Tuesday, is a worry for Coach Daniels. "They have Shawn to throw the ball into. That cures a lot of ills," he said. He's also high on the guy who throws it in, BWC assist champ Bernard Rock. And he's glad the Titans don't have to face the Smith Spectrum crowd that he admitted taunted Kevin Richardson into taking several more airballs than he should have attempted and going 0-for-10 in Logan.

The kind of defense that urged Richardson to go empty and held center Babacar Camara to 1-for-8 shooting in Logan will be important again. USU's recent losses came when defense and rebounding lacked.

"That's what we're trying to focus on for the tournament, holding our opponents under 40 percent (field-goal shooting) and outrebounding them," said Rock. "If we play defense like we've been doing, I think we can go back to the NCAA. That's what we're hoping to do, anyway. We're going to take first game first, hold them under 40 percent, and then next game and try to hold them under 40 percent, and next game . . . "