By all accounts, Utah State will be improved over last year's 14-16 basketball team that finished 8-10 and fifth in the Big West Conference.

But in that conference, being improved doesn't necessarily translate to moving up. The teams that finished ahead of the Aggies last year - 1990 NCAA champion UNLV, New Mexico State, Santa Barbara and Long Beach - are all expected to be up there again, with at least two of them nationally ranked.Frustrating?

The Aggies say no.

"It's good," says Coach Kohn Smith. "The league is really tough, but we feel we can compete really well."

"It's all the better for us, real exciting," agrees junior guard/forward Kendall Youngblood, a starter since he was a freshman, Big West freshman of the year and a second-team all-leaguer after topping the Aggies in scoring average (15.4). Youngblood, says Smith, has improved his ballhandling and outside shot this season.

"One reason a lot of people come here is to play the best; if you play college basketball, you want to play the best," Youngblood says. "I'd rather play good teams."

"Oh yeah," adds Rich Jardine, a senior who usually starts at wing, where he made 50 pecent of his field goals last season to average 11.8, second to Youngblood. "It makes you more ready for the games, brings out the best in you," Jardine says.

The players say they sense things coming together now for a variety of reasons. "It's his year; everyone's his recruit," Youngblood says of Smith, who's in his third season with USU.

"Everyone coming back (Randy Funk, Jeff Parris, Gary Patterson, Allen Gordon, Brent Lofton and Roger Daley) knows the offense," says Jardine, who adds they can help teach the others. "It puts us a lot farther ahead."

Smith lists experience and maturity as the No. 1 assets of this rather smallish club that's loaded with scoring potential, particularly with Iowa State transfer Jay Goodman in the backcourt. "A great addition," says Youngblood. "Goodman's a shooter, and his work ethic is where everyone's should be."

The No. 1 debit is defense. "We've been scoring lots of points," says Smith, reflecting on scores from intra-squad and exhibition games, "which makes me awfully nervous about who we can guard."

With a hurry-up offense that should be a little quicker this season and a need to score before the defense sets up because of size, the hope around USU is that rebounding will be improved to help start the offense downcourt.

There are two reasons to think rebounding could be improved.

One is new players (freshmen Eric Franson and Bryon Ruffner) to help last year's leader, Funk, and Parris, who's struggling to come back from knee trouble that's limiting his practice time.

The other is a commitment the team made to weight training last spring. "We all got together and decided to work hard in the off-season," says Jardine.

"Just for rebounding," explains Youngblood. "We needed to be a lot stronger. We did it last year, but not as much."

The Aggies should be better in overall talent this season, with freshmen Franson, Ruffner and sophomores Goodman, Lofton and Patterson demanding playing time if not frontline positions in Smith's always-changing starting lineup that's more a starting rotation of seven or eight. He tailors his starting five to the size and skills of the opposition.

"The freshmen can play," says Youngblood.

"We're definitely a lot deeper," says Jardine. "Everyone contributes. If we get tired, someone can come in and pick up the slack. Last year wasn't like that."

Smith calls Ruffner and Franson "outstanding freshmen. Ruffner's just a good all-around player," he says, and Franson "could play quite a bit inside." Smith had plans to redshirt another freshman forward, Charlie Sager, to let him grow some, "but he's played himself into a position where I don't think I can."

With Youngblood, Gordon and Goodman at guard, the Aggies are pretty well set on the perimeter, but Lofton and Patterson should see good time there, too. Lofton's an efficient scorer in practice, and Patterson's a defenseive specialist who doesn't make mistakes.

When the Aggies open the regular season Saturday at BYU at 6 p.m., they will be without senior guard Matt Barnes, who broke a foot.