More dancing ahead for Utah State?
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Utah State, the two-time defending Western Athletic Conference champion, was failing to meet expectations.
Winners of at least 23 games for the past 10 seasons, the Aggies on Jan. 4 had already suffered their sixth loss -- a 22-point blowout at Louisiana Tech.
After the game, coach Stew Morrill tried taking the pressure off his players by simply reminding them that basketball is not life and death. Enjoy playing it, he said.
The Aggies took the message to heart and haven't lost since. Utah State is now 20-6, atop the WAC once again and playing with swagger after reeling off 10 wins in a row heading into tonight's rematch against Louisiana Tech (ESPN2, 11 p.m. ET).
Soon enough, the bespectacled 57-year-old coach found himself getting his groove on behind closed locker room doors as a treat for when the Aggies completed sweeps on the road.
"We call it the sweep dance, and it's very short," Morrill said, smiling after his Saturday night performance on the heels of a 16-point win at San Jose State. "They love it."
Twice in as many years Morrill has had to replace the production of graduating conference players of the year. Four returning starters made for a veteran lineup this season, but perhaps the biggest Aggie to come back was Morrill, who announced last April he was no longer a candidate for Washington State's head-coaching job.
"I wasn't even going to mess around with it, and they kept calling," said Morrill, a native Utahan. "The money level made you at least listen. They got who they needed to get, and I stayed where I needed to stay.
"I'm not going anywhere. That's pretty obvious at this point. This is where I'll finish, and hopefully I'll do it for a while more."
Morrill, who notched career win No. 500 on Jan. 23 against Idaho, cites the program's stability in explaining how he's managed to operate out of Logan with success.
He is 287-97 (.747) in 12 seasons at the school, has won 62 of the last 64 at the Spectrum, and manages to find the right mix in recruiting locally and with junior college players.
The average age of the current Utah State starting lineup is more than 22 years old (two of the five are married), and maturity is required to run a complicated offense that relies on flip-card signals from the bench.
"We've got four million plays, and [Morrill] knows when we're not running them right or we're not running them hard enough," said redshirt junior forward Tai Wesley, who leads the team with 13.2 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.
And the results?
"Everybody goes and gets 10 [points], and we get a 'W,' and we go home," Wesley said.
The Aggies are admittedly without star power, but that's fine by them as they settle for being fundamentally sound. Their scoring is balanced, and they lead the conference in defense and rebounding. They're first in the nation in 3-point shooting and second in free throw shooting.
Jared Quayle, the lone Aggies senior, whose hot hand nearly resulted in a first-round NCAA tournament upset against Marquette last year, leads the team in assists and steals and is second to Wesley, averaging 12.1 points and 5.8 rebounds. Junior Pooh Williams is called on to lock down the opposition's scoring threat on the perimeter.
The Aggies run teams out of the gym with their inside-out game and love to go to the low post, where junior college transfer Nate Bendall has emerged as a pleasant surprise in replacing WAC Player of the Year Gary Wilkinson.
Bendall played sparingly as a freshman, and when he from his Latter-day Saints service mission, Morrill asked that he go play for Salt Lake Community College instead since he would have played behind Wilkinson.
The 6-foot-9 forward swallowed his pride, improved his game while helping SLCC win a national title and came back this season to help soften the blow of losing Wilkinson's 17.1 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.
"I knew it was an All-American that was leaving, and those are big shoes to fill, and I just wanted to get out there and work hard," said Bendall, who overcame a two-game layoff in late December following minor heart surgery to repair an atrial flutter to average 10.6 points and 5.8 rebounds.
"It starts with coaching, and it trickles down."
Two years removed from losing all-time leading scorer Jaycee Carroll and one year after a school-record 30-win season, the Aggies are in the hunt for an at-large berth into the NCAA tournament if they run away with the regular-season conference title. Not that they need one if they repeat as WAC tournament champions.
"A lot of people say, 'How are they going to do it once Jaycee Carroll's gone, once Gary Wilkinson's gone?'" Wesley said. "But it seems like every year we just step up, replace, reload and keep going."
The dancing, it appears, is just getting into full swing.
Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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