If eight teams make the Big West Conference postseason tournament, does third place really mean that much more than fourth in the regular-season standings?
It does, says Utah State basketball Coach Kohn Smith, whose Aggies are alone in third place today, thanks to a Pacific loss to Fullerton Thursday while USU was idle. "It's a big advantage in the tournament seedings - fourth-place plays in (No. 1-ranked) UNLV's bracket," says Smith.Tonight the Aggies have the chance to remain in third place for at least another week if they can do the one thing they've not yet done in conference play - win on the road.
Utah State (6-5, 9-11) visits last-place San Jose State (3-8, 5-15) tonight at 8:30 MST.
It is the only game of the week for either team. And it is the best opportunity the Aggies have for a while to get that first road win. USU defeated San Jose 88-71 in the Spectrum last Saturday.
After playing five games in 10 days, then taking a whole week between games, the Aggies now have three straight road games, including Fresno and Pacific next week.
To win on the road, Smith says the Aggies "have to play real good defense, shoot well and work at playing and not getting involved emotionally - do everything well technically." USU may again be without guard Jay Goodman, who led them in scoring until spraining both ankles in recent weeks. Goodman made the trip, but his playing status is undetermined. Most likely, he would be used only if the team is in deep foul trouble.
In Goodman's absence, senior forward Randy Funk has taken up some of the slack, combining all-around hustle with more and better shooting. He's accurate 58 percent of the time this season, but over the last five games, while the ankles have either bothered or sidelined Goodman, Funk has hit 71 percent of his shots - 35-for-49 - and his season scoring average has jumped nearly two points.
"Since Jay got hurt, we've been distributing the ball a little more evenly," says Smith, "and part of it is Randy, too. He's just worked really hard and been aggressive on the offensive end, on both ends."
Junior Kendall Youngblood has also upped his average half a point and had a career-high 28 against UNLV in that stretch. He has now scored 1,122 career points, 18th-best in USU history; his 11th point tonight would move him into 17th.
Probable starters for USU are Funk, Youngblood, senior point guard Allen Gordon and freshman forwards Eric Franson and Bryon Ruffner. Smith started senior Rich Jardine for Franson the last game and isn't sure which lineup he'll use tonight in the rematch.
Last Saturday, the Aggies started well, faded, then took San Jose out for good with a 19-2 run to start the second half, getting 10 points from Youngblood in 2:05 minutes.
San Jose should have senior guard Troy Batiste back. He missed much of the season after arthroscopic knee surgery.