His Big West Conference Tournament VIP credentials read, "Chuck Bell, San Jose State," but the former Utah State athletic director, one week removed, was as emotional and near-teary-eyed as anybody in the Aggie contingent Sunday afternoon in Reno after USU won the league championship and its bid to the NCAA Tournament.

"This is awesome," he said, his voice cracking. "I'm happy today."Officially now in the WAC, he'd come to Reno in case USU lost and needed his help getting into the NIT.

The 13th-seeded Aggies (25-7) will play fourth-seeded Maryland (19-10) Thursday starting at 12:42 p.m. MST at ARCO Arena in the first game of the eight-team subregional at Sacramento.

It's a tough draw. Maryland, making the NCAAs for the fifth straight year, played the country's toughest schedule and has wins over two of the NCAA's No. 1 seeds - Kansas (86-83) and North Carolina (89-83).

But the Aggies didn't figure to win three straight on a neutral court in the Big West tourney, either, with their tiny lineup that included a 6-foot-6 center and 6-5 power forward. And it all started with the Ags playing the tournament-opening game in the noon hour on a Thursday just a few hundred yards from I-80. So there's at least that much karma going.

And nobody can take away that league title that eluded USU for the past 10 years.

For Bell - who hired coach Larry Eustachy and football coach John L. Smith, whose team won the Big West and went to the December Humanitarian Bowl before Smith went to Louisville - Sunday's 78-63 win over defending champion Pacific put "a finishing touch and justification to all the hard work."

Bell spent a stormy five years at USU, hurting feelings with personnel changes and courting the big-donor alumni over the guy who gave $50 to the program. But he did a lot of things to pull USU into the present, starting with hiring Eustachy. Bell recently left for SJSU, giving in to relentless critics.

Bell, who already had a piece of the championship net, was especially gratified Sunday when interim athletic director Ken Pet-er-son handed him one of the championship watches.

"Chuck Bell is as deserving of the success of this team as anybody," said Peterson. "It's appropriate. He's just been gone a week."

And Bell planned to be at USU's NCAA game, wherever it was. Turns out, it's on I-80 between Logan and San Jose.

Peterson took over March 1 and presided unofficially over the last two home games. He's 5-0 as interim AD. "I'm just so excited for Utah State," he said.

BIG DADDIES: Media relations director Mike Strauss and senior guard Neal Geddes became daddies just before the team left for the Big West tourney. Their wives each delivered sons . . . The wife of junior Mike Jones is due soon, too.

BIG LAUGHS: After winning in the semifinals, Eustachy brought up his personal record in tourney championships. "This is my fourth finals. I've rolled a big goose egg," he said. "I feel the flu coming on. I may not coach this game. I feel like Marv Levy (coach of the four-time-Super Bowl-loser Buffalo Bills)."

Eustachy was late coming to Sunday's game, but he was there for tipoff wearing the black turtleneck and brown pants he's worn nearly all season. "I'm extremely superstitious when it comes to toothbrushes, clothes and socks," he said.