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Utah State basketball: A victory over Louisiana Tech could bolster Aggies resume for NCAA bid

LOGAN — This, boys and girls, is a big game.

When Louisiana Tech strolls into the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum tonight they'll do so knowing the game is a clash of Western Athletic Conference heavyweights and their hopes of winning the league's regular season title likely hang in the balance.

Utah State, on the other hand, has a little wiggle room in its quest to win a third straight WAC title.

That hardly means the Aggies have any room to relax, though.

"We are excited about where we are at. Our team is upbeat and we are practicing with a lot of energy," USU coach Stew Morrill said. "Hopefully we can continue to take that to the court like we did at San Jose. That is obviously what it is going to take."

And though, with just four WAC games remaining — three of them at home — and Utah State holding a semi-comfortable one-game lead in the standings, the Aggies won't admit it, they're concerned with more than just the conference race.

Utah State is quietly building a resume for an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament should it not win the WAC's automatic spot. And even if the Aggies do win the conference tournament, they'd like to get a decent seed.

With an RPI currently in the low 40s, Utah State has a chance to work that down into the 30s with three of their five remaining contests against teams with sub-100 RPIs.

To make that case, Morrill is preaching attitude and enthusiasm.

"What you really look for this time of year is energy. I have told the players for years that they take over in February and March," the 12th-year Aggie coach said. "They really have to in terms of getting each other to practice hard and enjoy playing basketball. We have had great leadership through the years and it is nice to see this team respond with the same kind of energy on a daily basis."

Earning a measure of revenge against the school that gave Utah Karl Malone and Paul Millsap would also be nice.

The Aggies' last loss — way back on January 4 — came on Karl Malone Court and was, by far, USU's most-lopsided loss of the season. The 82-60 setback left Utah State 0-2 in the WAC but also set the stage for the current 10-game win streak.

"We watched the horror movie (Monday) and saw how well they played and how poorly we played," Morrill said. "We saw how good of a team they are and how talented they are. I think it is starting to come back to us."

The Bulldogs have another talented big man making life difficult for opponents.

Magnum Rolle, a 6-foot-11 forward with long arms and loads of skill. He's averaging 14.7 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game.

LTU also has high-scoring guard Kyle Gibson (21.0 points per game) and Olu Ashaolu )11.0 points, 8.7 rebounds) rounding out the team.

But the Bulldogs have very little depth and get almost no offense from its bench.

Utah State's bench, on the other hand, has been one of its biggest weapons recently with Brian Green and Brady Jardine playing huge roles.

Jardine, however, broke his cheekbone in Saturday's game and was fitted with a protective mask. The impact of that injury is still a bit of a mystery for the Aggies.

"It takes a little adjustment when you play with a facemask. It could have been a lot worse news," Morrill said. "We were concerned that he might be done for the season or part of it. It is a situation where he can at least play with a facemask. I just found out that it is here and he will practice today with it. That will help him get used to it."

After tonight's game, things stay challenging for the Aggies.

Wichita State makes its ESPN BracketBuster visit to the Spectrum Saturday night in yet another game Utah State can't afford to lose.

e-mail: jeborn@desnews.com

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On the air

Utah State (20-6, 10-2 WAC) vs. Louisiana Tech (20-5, 8-3)

Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, Logan

Tonight: 9 p.m.

TV: ESPN2

Radio: 610 AM, 1230 AM, 95.9 FM