It's come down to this: Utah State goes into the final Big West weekend with games at Santa Barbara Thursday and Irvine Saturday with a .500 record and a fourth-place standing. For now, the Aggies are slight overachievers, being as how they were picked to finish fifth or sixth in preseason polls.
If they win two or split for the weekend, they can probably maintain a positive image. Even a split could tie them for third place if Pacific loses its last two games. If the Aggies lose two, they could wind up as low as sixth but still qualify for the league tournament."If we play well," says Coach Kohn Smith about how the weekend will affect his thinking about the season, "I'll be satisfied; if we don't, I wouldn't be.
"Our guys," he says, "would really like to get a couple of road wins. If they do, that would be about as good as we could have done this year," Smith says, conceding that UNLV and New Mexico State, both in the top-15 rankings, are that much better than the rest of the league.
For a team with one road win in league play, two more may be a lot to ask, even if Santa Barbara (6-10) and Irvine (4-12) aren't UNLV and New Mexico State.
Santa Barbara, picked preseason to be in the top four, still has an outside shot at doing that, and Smith is wary, even if Jerry Pimm's Gauchos have lost four of their last five games with the only win against last-place Irvine.
"Santa Barbara's back is to the wall," Smith says. "If we beat them, they're 6-11 and have to win Saturday just to get into the tournament."
Senior forward Gary Gray, at 6-foot-9 and 250 pounds, "is the first thing we have to defense," Smith says. Gray scored 14 and had 10 rebounds on Jan. 4 when the Aggies beat the Gauchos 81-75 in Logan. Lucious Davis, a 6-7 forward, had 16 and guard Idris Jones had 13.
That game saw Aggie Jay Goodman score 31. He did that again the next game, at Fullerton, and hasn't come close since, and Smith has come down on him for his overall play. "I want him to play better as a guard, not just as a scorer. He's really responded in practice," says Smith. Goodman's ankle sprains also have healed to the point where he's no longer limped in practice this week, says Smith.
Goodman may continue to come off the bench this week, though, as Smith guesses his lineup will include Allen Gordon and Kendall Youngblood at guards with Rich Jardine, Randy Funk and Bryon Ruffner starting inside. That quintet was strong in Saturday's win over Long Beach.
Youngblood is coming off a career-high 29 points, Ruffner had a career-high 19 Thursday followed by 14 Saturday, Gordon had a season-high 14 Saturday, Jardine's been in double figures in four of his last five games and Funk's had double figures in his last six games.
"Ruffner," says Smith, "has a real chance to be freshman of the year if he finishes well."
A Smith-coached Aggie team has never won at Santa Barbara and never lost at Irvine.