LOGAN — A season with high expectations tips off for both the Utah State and Weber State men's basketball teams tonight.
For the second straight season, the Aggies and Wildcats face off in their season-opener. This time, the game is in Logan in front of what will surely be a rowdy Spectrum crowd, and features two teams that are favored to win their respective conferences.
The Aggies, who were picked to win the WAC crown, bring back seven of their top eight scorers from last season. The Wildcats, expected to win the Big Sky regular-season title for the third straight year, returns reigning conference Player of the Year Damian Lillard.
Both teams are talented, so add in the fact that it's an in-state game and it should be an exciting night in Logan.
The Wildcats are the first of several tough non-conference tests for the Aggies.
"I was telling our players that we are playing a lot of teams on our schedule that are picked to either win their league or contend right at the top of their leagues," said Utah State coach Stew Morrill. "I think when you open against a good team like this, that creates a sense of urgency as to how we are going to react when we play against a good team."
When the Aggies and Wildcats play, the coaching matchup is always an interesting subplot. Weber State's Randy Rahe was an assistant under Morrill at both Colorado State and Utah State for a total of 13 years. Rahe always credits Morrill for having a hand in the success he's enjoyed at Weber — which Morrill says is too generous.
"This has become an intense in-state rivalry and obviously my relationship with Coach Morrill makes this even more of an intense game," Rahe said.
Tonight will mark the debut of Utah State point guard Brockeith Payne, who replaces Jared Quayle in the starting lineup. He has quickly fit in with his new teammates, as he averaged 12 points and 5.5 assists in two exhibition games.
"He is doing everything that has been asked of him and he brings it every practice," Morrill said. "He has great talent, he is a strong guard and he is not out on the court hunting for shots."
Utah State will be without the services of forward Nate Bendall, who is out indefinitely with chronic foot problems.
The Wildcats aren't nearly as experienced as the Aggies. They return two starters in Lillard and Kyle Bullinger, as well as lettermen Lindsey Hughey, Darin Mahoney and Trevor Morris. Rahe is thrilled with the work ethic of his newcomers, but it may take some time for them and the returning players to mesh.
Of course, having Lillard, who led the Big Sky in scoring last season, will help the Wildcats through their growing pains.
"He is a very good guard who makes plays," Morrill said. "He can shoot the basketball and he can get on a roll, much like Jaycee Carroll, where it doesn't matter if you get a hand in his face. What we are going to have to do is make him earn every basket he gets."
Weber State at Utah State
Today, 7:05 p.m.
Smith Spectrum, Logan
TV: Ch. 30
Radio: 1430 AM, 1390 AM