Third place in the Big West Conference is a pretty big deal, what with Nevada-Las Vegas and New Mexico State having a combined 23-1 overall record and holding down the first two spots at 5-0 and 4-0.
Utah State (2-2, 5-8) goes into this weekend's two winnable home games - starting tonight at 7:30 in the Smith Spectrum with 3-3, 7-8 Pacific - tied for third place. "If we could win two, we'd be in third by ourselves," Coach Kohn Smith predicts.The problem is, Smith may have to find a way to replace the No. 6 scorer in the league, No. 1 for the Aggies, because sophomore guard Jay Goodman sprained an ankle in Monday's practice.
Smith seemed doubtful Goodman will be ready for tonight's game, though he still holds hope and says the decision could go right up until game time.
"That hurts us a little because they play zone a lot," Smith says about Pacific.
Goodman, who averages 19.2 points, is most effective on three-point shots, having taken 109 of them. He's made 39 percent of the three-pointers he's taken, enough that someone has to guard him closely - something that's harder to do in a zone. Goodman also leads the league in steals with 39, and UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian was most impressed with his ballhandling in a USU loss at Las Vegas last Thursday.
Smith has been using a three-guard lineup, with Allen Gordon and Kendall Youngblood, but if Goodman's out, he'll probably start a third forward - Rich Jardine, Gary Patterson or Bryon Ruffner. Jardine and Ruffner have been starters in Smith's constantly evolving lineup; Patterson's never started.
Senior guard Matt Barnes, out since fall with a broken foot, has been working out, and Smith says he could see playing time this weekend, especially if Goodman is unable to go. Barnes is a ballhandler/perimeter shooter like Goodman.
Smith expects Youngblood, a junior who needs just 11 points tonight to reach 1,000 for his young career, to be preoccupied with Pacific's Dell Demps, the No. 4 scorer in the league with a 20-point average. Youngblood averages 16.9. "Demps and Youngblood always have good battles," Smith says. Demps set a Pacific school record with 14 assists against Irvine last week.
The other Pacific threat is 6-foot-10 center Don Lyttle, who can run with the Tigers on the fast break and pull up and shoot the three-pointer, too. Smith likens him to Utah's Josh Grant. Lyttle is tied for third in BWC rebounding with 7.9 a game and is eighth in shot blocking at 1.3 a game.
Both Pacific and Saturday opponent Fresno (2-4, 7-8) are hard to figure because they've lost to teams they shouldn't but have beaten or extended favored teams. "Pacific had New Mexico State down by 16," says Smith, adding, "they've lost a couple of heartbreakers." New Mexico State was a two-point loss.
Pacific has beaten San Francisco and Fullerton (which both beat Utah State) and respected Long Beach State, all at home. The Tigers lost by 20 to UNLV.