Utah State's 3-6 basketball team expected more during the preseason, but now that's over, and Big West Conference play starts tonight.

The Aggies open the 1991 league schedule with Cal-Irvine Wednesday night at 7:30 in the Spectrum."Our preseason, even though it wasn't very successful, has kind of helped us prepare for conference," offers Aggie Coach Kohn Smith.

"The one thing about it," he says, "is you can clear the slate and project everything now toward the league. We're going to go about it that way and try to correct things that contributed to our demise."

Chief among those things is shooting. A team that looked like it could score 100 points a game is shooting 42 percent, 35.9 at home.

"That's something we thought we would do very well," says Smith. "It's just a matter of getting it done in games. We shoot very well in practice."

Smith hopes Irvine's quick style - the Anteaters average 90.2 points - will cure the Ag. "We want to play uptempo games, but the last three or four teams have all slowed it down," he says.

Guard Jay Goodman should be a scoring leader, but for defenses and illness. If Goodman's patient, says Smith, he's fine, but he rushes shots when pressed.

Defensively Goodman and the Aggies overachieve, holding opponents to 47 percent shooting. Goodman and Kendall Youngblood are among league steal leaders.

Irvine was chosen to place ninth by coaches and media in preseason polls. (The Aggies sixth/fifth.) But Irvine is 5-7 after an eight-road-game schedule that saw them play UCLA, Utah, Maryland, Stanford and Cal.

The Anteaters are amid a 10-day road trip that ends Friday at San Jose. They spent Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and most of Wednesday in Salt Lake, practicing at East High. They beat Alabama State 102-98 but lost to Tennessee-Chattanooga 88-68 in the weekend's Dr. Pepper Classic.

Utah State's worry is senior center Ricky Butler, who's not as burly as he was but is still 6-foot-7 and 245 pounds. "He has a good touch around the basket and is so strong and quick for his size," says Smith. He scores 18.7 a game and gets 8.0 rebounds.

"It's scary," says USU assistant Jim Boatwright, "that Butler is a better player this year and that he has lost 30 pounds. We've always had trouble with Ricky, so if he has lost 30 pounds and he's jumping and dunking, we will really have our hands full."

Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan started the season observing, "We have good news and bad news: We have four starters returning from a team that was 5-23 last year." Already the Anteaters have won that many.

Utah State hosts Jerry Pimm's Santa Barbara team Friday night.