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Aggies set sights on Jayhawks

LOGAN — Utah State's Big West championship trophy is in good hands.

Ever since hitting four free throws in the final 15.1 seconds to lift the Aggies to a 57-54 win over Cal Poly in Saturday's finals, Cardell Butler has cradled the gold trophy in his arms as if it were a baby.

"It's a good feeling, man. I don't know what to say," Butler said Sunday as USU's flight from Orange County arrived in Salt Lake City. "It's a lot of fun. I love this team. I love the coaches. I love the whole program. I love what we're doing at Utah State."

Advancing to the NCAA Tournament, obviously, makes one happy. So much so, in fact, that Butler didn't care who the Aggies will face in the first round.

"It does not matter," he said. "We're there to compete."

Even, teammate Desmond Penigar added hours later, if USU (24-8) faces national powerhouse Kansas (25-7) in the first round. The 15th-seeded Aggies and No. 2 Jayhawks square off Thursday (7:40 p.m.) in Oklahoma City.

"It's wonderful. We're playing a high-caliber team in a prime-time game," Penigar said after learning of the draw. "It's going to be a challenge for us, but we're up for it."

Though a bit surprised to be seeded so low, USU coach Stew Morrill said it would be a mistake for the Aggies to complain.

"We're excited to be in this position," he explained. "We're not going to feel bad about it."

The Aggies, after all, are happy to be in the Big Dance after mis-stepping enough to earn a No. 3 seed in the Big West tourney. They won three games in Anaheim, though, to punch their ticket to the NCAAs for the third time in four years. It's USU's 15th bid overall.

"We're just happy to be here, but that's not where it's going to stop. We're trying to get victories. We're not just going there to make a showing, we're trying to get wins," Penigar said. "We just need to play together like we've been doing. There's a sense of urgency for the other seniors and me. Now we just need to go out there and play our butts off."

It may not be enough against Kansas. The Jayhawks could very well make a repeat appearance in the Final Four. Seniors Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich headline a squad that has defeated opponents by a margin of nearly 18 points per game. Collison, a forward, is a Player of the Year candidate who averages 18.6 points and 9.3 rebounds. Hinrich is a guard who scores at a 17.8 clip and shoots 43.9 percent from 3-point range.

"They have big-time talent at every spot, but those two guys are All-Americans. You've got one guy draining threes and a big guy inside who's pretty dang hard to deal with," Morrill said before praising Kansas coach Roy Williams and the system he employs. "The biggest challenge is that the talent level they have is fabulous and we're going to have to deal with it."

Williams, who acknowledged being a bit mystified and in some ways ticked off that the Jayhawks didn't receive a No. 1 seed, admits he doesn't know a lot about USU.

"Stew, what I do know of him, is really, really a good guy. He's really a fun guy. We don't have conversations and that kind of thing, but every time I see him, I say hello and it's genuine that I want to know how he's doing and I think it's the same with him.," Williams said. "I've watched his teams play on TV and I think he does a great job. I don't know a lot about his team. (Desmond) Penigar is their leading scorer. I remember him and I remember watching the Johnson (Toraino) kid. I saw him when he was in high school. I don't know too much about his team right now, but he may know more about us just because we've been on TV so many times.

"We know that we've got to play the first game," he continued. "If we don't play the first game, all this talk on Selection Sunday makes no difference."


Utah State vs. Kansas

Thursday, approximately 7:30 p.m.

Oklahoma City


E-MAIL: dirk@desnews.com