Because the Big West Conference - led by 1990 NCAA champion UNLV, ranked No. 1 nationally despite a pending ban from tournament play - is so strong in basketball, "For the media and coaches to pick us fifth is a natural reaction," says Utah State Coach Kohn Smith, who:

No. 1 - Harbors hopes of finishing higher.No. 2 - Can't complain because he didn't put Utah State on his own ballot Wednesday at the Big West media day. "I left us out, just voted for the other nine teams. Let them decide," he said, meaning the other coaches and media.

The Aggies finished sixth on the coaches' poll, behind UNLV, New Mexico State, Long Beach State, UC-Santa Barbara and Pacific.

In the media poll, the Aggies finished fifth, ahead of Pacific but behind UNLV, New Mexico State, Long Beach and Santa Barbara.

"Polls are a lot of fun and interesting," explains Smith, "but I don't think they mean very much. If you look at the polls last year, they picked us way down, and we finished fifth and came really close to second or third."

The Aggies, who open their exhibition season tonight in the Logan Spectrum against Fellowship of Christian Athletes, "have got a chance to be a really good basketball team," says Smith. "I'm excited," he says.

Smith subscribes to the majority idea expressed at Wednesday's media conference by the Big West coaches that the league, despite its big-name teams at the top, has better balance than perhaps ever before.

"The conference is flat-out dynamite," says San Jose State Coach Stan Morrison, whose club was picked to finish at the bottom of the keg by the media but eighth by the coaches.

"The bottom of the conference has come up to the other level," says Santa Barbara's Jerry Pimm, in his eighth year with the Gauchos after leaving Utah.

Says Smith, "Those teams down on the bottom have the capability to just flip-flop. New Mexico State, Long Beach and Santa Barbara are all picked based on what they did last year. One or two wins or losses in reverse of last year could change that whole thing," Smith says.

"There's not a single game you can look on there (schedule) and think that you've got a win," Smith adds.

Or a loss.

Lots of people in this league think they have a shot at going 1-on-1 with UNLV and coming out with an isolated victory. Nobody sees the Rebels as losing the overall race, though.

On the coaches' poll, the Rebels got all 10 first-place votes and 100 points. Neil McCarthy's New Mexico State had 841/2, and Pimm's Gauchos had 801/2.

"Utah homies," McCarthy quipped about himself and Pimm, who jumped from Weber State and the U.

On the media poll, UNLV had 48 of 51 first-place votes and 506 points to 446 points for New Mexico State, 378 for Long Beach and 365 for Santa Barbara.

Most coaches at Wednesday's meetings talked about being short, young, hurt, uncertain, whatever.