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Brad Rock: USU basketball in new 'golden years'

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 22 2004 12:00 a.m. MST

USU's Nate Harris slams the ball home during a win over BYU. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News</i>) USU's Nate Harris slams the ball home during a win over BYU. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News)
The golden years in Utah State basketball history were just that.
Aggie teams won big and demanded respect.
BYU, Weber State and Utah — no basketball novices themselves — couldn't beat them. Playing USU was an imposing challenge.
That's because the Aggies were impressive: five straight seasons with 23 or more wins, including a school-record 28 two years in a row.
Oh, I'm sorry. Did you think I was speaking of the era of Cornell Green, Wayne Estes and Marv Roberts? Of the days when Ladell Andersen roamed the sidelines?
Actually, I was speaking in the moment.
The golden era of Aggie basketball is occurring right . . . about . . . nnnnnow.
As the Aggies move into their Big West schedule Thursday at Idaho, one thing is clear: Big Blue basketball rules Logan. When Stew Morrill took over as head coach in 1998, he inherited a program that was already thriving. Larry Eustachy had compiled a .649 winning percentage in five seasons before moving to Iowa State. All Morrill did was make Eustachy's work look trivial.
In six-plus seasons, Morrill has compiled a 150-48 record (.758), won three regular-season Big West titles, three conference tournament championships and made the NCAA tournament three times.
USU has the nation's fourth-best winning percentage in the new millennium, behind Duke, Stanford and Gonzaga. It has won eight of its last nine games against in-state rivals Utah, BYU and Weber State.
This, of course, impresses Aggie fans more than it does Morrill.
They don't call him "Big Stew" for nothing. He's a coach, and stewing is what coaches do. Though he encourages his players to stay relaxed off the court, on the court it's another matter. He stews about defense, rebounding, conditioning, attitude, injuries, turnovers and the price of rice in China. He even stews, er, Stews, about Cal-Riverside and Long Beach State.
Once again, the Stewing has paid off. This year the Aggies have beaten Utah, Weber State and BYU (twice). OK, they aren't perfect. Their two losses were to Central Florida and Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne — not exactly top-level competition. Still, the Ags are picked again to contend for the Big West championship.
Perhaps the ultimate validation, though, is this: Even Andersen can't find fault. The Aggies' most revered basketball coach, who had a 173-96 record in 10 seasons, is a Stew fan. If anyone could be excused for downplaying someone's accomplishments, it's a legendary predecessor. Yet in a conversation last winter, Andersen noted that "you'd be hard-pressed to find a better coach in America than Stew Morrill."
You'd be hard-pressed to find a place where the coach is more appreciated, too. Morrill is working on an almost unheard-of 10-year contract.
Now that the Aggies are moving into the WAC next year, their outlook could improve even more. In the Big West, a team must win the conference tournament to make the NCAA field. Last year USU won 25 games; in 2002 it won 23. Yet in both cases it was ignored by the NCAA selection committee. The crime: losing in the Big West tournament.
The WAC is much more likely to place two teams in the field.
This doesn't mean USU and Morrill can rest on their record.
Clearly this is a good time to step into a different realm. Disappointed over NIT bids in 2002 and 2004, the Aggies folded up and lost in the first round both years. They have advanced beyond the first round of the NCAA tournament just once since 1970, and even then (2001) they only made it to the second round.
Under Morrill, their combined NCAA tourney and NIT record is 1-5.
So even in this golden era, there is room for improvement.
There's an idiom that says there is no such thing as standing still; if you aren't moving ahead, you're falling back. In the Aggies' case, then, it's time to move on. No sense getting in a rut. NIT bids and first-round NCAA exits are fine, but how about doing something in the postseason this year?
There.
That should give them something to Stew about.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com

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