Things are looking up for Utah State.
Well, at least the Aggies will be looking up. As usual.USU (22-7, 13-3) enters the Big West Conference Tournament at 1 p.m. Friday with the best overall record in the league and the top seed from the tougher Eastern division, but the Aggies will be craning their necks for probably the whole game.
The opponent is Long Beach State (10-18, 5-11), the fourth seed and fifth-place finisher in the Western Division that has lost its past four games and eight of its past 10, beating only last-place UC-Santa Barbara (twice) in that span.
But the 49ers' strength is the Aggies' Achilles heel: Height.
Andrew Betts (18.7 ppg, 9.9 rpg), the BWC' OTHER 7-foot-1 Englishman (Pacific's 7-1 Michael Olowokandi leads BWC scoring, 21.8, and rebounding, 11.1), made the national coaches, association District 15 all-star second team.
By way of comparison, Utah State point guard Marcus Saxon (16.1 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 4.3 apg) made the District 14 second team. Saxon repeated as an All-Big West first-team all-star in voting released Wednesday. USU forward Kevin Rice made the second team.
Fifth-year USU coach Larry Eustachy was named Big West Coach of the Year Wednesday; he also won the award in 1995, when USU won its first league title since 1980.
When there's no regular on the USU team taller than 6-foot-6, chasing a 7-1 all-star around the floor in Reno may be a daunting endeavor. And Betts is flanked by a 6-7 point guard, Antrone Lee, who's third in the league in steals with 60 and whose shot impresses Eustacy. Lee "has made a lot of progress since our game," Eustachy said.
The Aggies beat Long Beach 69-55 in Logan Jan. 10 and swept the Western Division.
The 49ers are also hoping to have 6-3 senior guard Quincy Nackles, who's been out since Jan. 17 with a broken thumb, back for this game. He had surgery that pinned the digit together, and the cast came off last week.
"They are a very talented team, and I don't think you can play harder than Long Beach right now," says Eustachy, a 1979 Long Beach graduate.
"We have faced a size problem all year long," Eustachy said. "In our lineup, we will have (6-5) Pharoah (Davis) at the five (center) a lot, playing against Betts, so that is a real disadvantage. I don't think enough has been said about this small group of (USU) players," said Eustachy, who for most of the season insisted height wasn't important. "Until you get to 7 feet," Eustachy said with a nervous laugh.
"It's quite amazing to find us where we are in the RPIs (Ratings Percentage Index, which takes into account strength of schedule) and the national voting. I know everybody is enjoying this, but it is a once-in-a-lifetime (thing). We have a small margin for error," said Eustachy.
USU is 33rd in the ESPN/CNN coaches' poll, 44th on AP and 53rd in the RPI.
Betts is a 71 percent free-throw shooter, and USU is quite thin on the bench, so the Aggies will have to play defense and rebound big without getting anyone in foul trouble. Eustachy worries about a bad shooting night, fouls on any starter and possible injury (senior Antwan Smith's knee injury seven minutes into last year's semifinal against Pacific doomed the Ags).
Saxon, Rice and fellow senior Justin Jones all must be on, and Eustachy hopes junior center Donnie Johnson keeps up his good work of last weekend (33 points, 18 rebounds in two games).
Eustachy also said it's about time for some postseason luck. USU has won its first-round game the last two seasons but had lost seven straight openers before that. Last year it was knocked out by Smith's injury; the year before, the Ags lost the championship game on a 3-point shot that was a career-first for the guy taking it.
"It's kind of a scary situation," Eustachy said. The tourney requires its champion to win games on three straight days, and lately, the champ has been the only BWC team advancing to the NCAA Tournament on the league's automatic bid.
"But at the same time, it's time for us to have a little luck," Eustachy said.