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Aggies hit road for tough opener

In his 21 seasons as a head basketball coach, Utah State's Stew Morrill has never started the season with five of his team's first seven games on the road.

Further complicating this road trip — which begins today at Oral Roberts in Tulsa, Okla., and ends Monday at Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro, Tenn. — is the quality of the competition, a somewhat inexperienced ball club for the Aggies and long travel.

Oral Roberts won the Mid Continent Conference regular season championship with a 13-3 league mark last year, but the Golden Eagles failed to make the NCAA Tournament after losing to Oakland, a No. 7 seed, 61-60 in the Mid Con Tournament championship game.

The Golden Eagles were picked to finish second in the Mid Con and they are currently ranked 44th (as is Utah State) in the ESPN/USA Today preseason poll.

Oral Roberts returns four starters and eight lettermen from its team that finished 25-8 and lost to Maryland, 85-72, in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament.

"Anytime you go out on the road early against a good team, whether they're veteran or not, is a challenge," Morrill said.

The game tips off at 6 p.m. at the Mabee Center in Tulsa.

Most notably, the Golden Eagles return Caleb Green, who was an honorable mention All-American last year while averaging 19.4 points and 9.3 rebounds a game.

"He's a load," Morrill said of the 6-foot-8 forward who was named the Mid Con Player of the Year. He's not only extremely productive scoring the ball, but he goes to the line a lot. He has a knack for getting fouled."

He hit 213 of 283 foul shots last year, and his attempts were nearly 100 more than Utah State's Spencer Nelson, who led the team with 197 free throw attempts.

"They do a great job of getting him the ball. He's a big challenge," Morrill said. "Our post defenders have got to do a good job to keep out of foul trouble and stay in the basketball game."

Senior Nate Harris, 6-7, 225, could draw the assignment of guarding Green.

Green scored 20 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in the Golden Eagles' 76-65 exhibition victory over Northeastern State last week. ORU also returns two-time all-league performer Ken Tutt, who averaged 17.1 points and 2.4 assists last year.

The Aggies have five players returning from a team that finished 24-8: Harris, David Pak, Cass Matheus, Chris Huber and Jaycee Carroll. They are joined by seven junior college transfers and a freshman.

"It's a challenge with five veterans who know what's up and eight new guys that don't know what's up," Morrill said of team practices and his players' ability to grasp the system. "It's slow for the veterans and too fast for the new guys. We have to try to find a happy medium."

The Aggies, who have won their last 11 season openers, are coming off a 67-60 loss to EA Sports last week.

"Coming off a loss in a exhibition game presents a big challenge for us. We have to get better this week," Morrill said.

As a team, the Aggies are shooting 44.3 percent from the field and only 23.3 percent from the 3-point line. Nate Harris leads four Aggie players who scored in double figures in two exhibition games with 13 points, while Matheus and Chaz Spicer are averaging 11.5 each, and Carroll chipped in with 10.

Following the game with ORU the Aggies will fly to Nashville and bus the 30 miles to Murfreesboro to face the Blue Raiders on Monday.

The Aggies host Lewis & Clark College in their home opener a week from today.


Aggies on the air

Utah State (0-0) at Oral Roberts (0-0)

Today, 6 p.m.

Mabee Center

TV: None

Radio: 610 AM (Logan), 98.3 FM, 1280 AM (SLC)


E-mail: jhinton@desnews.com