Only a few days ago, the Utah State Aggies were homing in on second place in the Big West Conference standings. Now they find themselves desperately trying to avoid the league's ill-fated bottom four as the regular season comes to a close.
The Aggies finish the regular season this week with a pair of road games, against UC-Irvine Thursday night and Fresno State Saturday night. On the line: the Aggies' seeding in the Big West post-season tournament, which is next week in Long Beach, Calif.If the Aggies win one or both of their games this week, they would finish among the top six teams in the league standings; if they lose both games, they could finish in the bottom four. The top six get a bye in the first round of the Big West tournament; the bottom four not only must play in first round, but the winners must play one of the league's top two teams the following day.
The Aggies, the defending Big West tournament champions, are rebounding from a two-point loss to lowly Pacific on Sunday afternoon that knocked them out of the crowd still pursuing second place.
The Aggies' road woes continue. They have won only three road games all season. Now they must face UC-Irvine and Fresno State on the road. The Aggies beat Irvine 104-71 earlier this season in Logan in what was one of their finest outings of the season, but they lost to Fresno State 76-72 in their first league game of the year.
Curiously, while USU struggles on the road, Irvine struggles at home - where they have won only seven of 13 games.
The Anteaters have three players - guards Rod Palmer (15.2) and Kevin Floyd (15.2) and center Mike Doktorczyk (15.8) - who average about 15 points a game. The other two starters average 20 points between them.
The Irvine-USU game, which will begin at 9:30 p.m. MST, will be televised nationally by ESPN.
As if the Aggies' road problems weren't enough, they have other troubles to consider. Dan Conway is slumping again and Darrel White has joined him. Conway made just 5 of 15 shots in two games last week, totaling 17 points and 4 rebounds. White has been sidelined since suffering a knee injury three weeks ago and has dropped out of the starting lineup.
With starting point guard Albert Chappell sidelined for the season with a knee injury and Reid Newey sick - he has a chronic cough and skipped practice this week - the Aggies aren't in the best of shape.
"We have quite a few problems: we have health problems, we have back problems, we have depth problems," says USU Coach Kohn Smith.
Fortunately for USU, some of the Aggies are at the top of their games. Nathan Grant, back again after further trouble with a chronic back problem, has made 14 of 19 field goal attempts in the last four games and has returned to the starting lineup. Newey, who's averaging 19.9 points a game, has improved his long-range shooting dramatically - to 49.5 percent from three-point range during the last 12 games (46 of 93), up from 41 percent in the first 13 games. Freshman Kendall Youngblood has scored in double figures in seven consecutive games - including a career-high 19 against UOP.
Big West standings
Team league overall
UNLV 14-2 21-7
New Mexico St. 11-5 18-8
UCSB 10-7 19-7
Long Beach St. 10-7 13-13
Fullerton St. 9-7 14-11
Utah State 9-7 11-14
UC-Irvine 8-8 11-14
Fresno State 7-9 12-13
Pacific 2-14 6-19
San Jose St. 1-15 5-20