Tai Wesley enjoys being chief agitator
Utah State's Tai Wesley is apparently disliked enough by some New Mexico State fans that after undergoing surgeries twice in recent years, the senior heard them chanting last week, "Break his nose!"
Two games earlier, the smirk on Wesley's face was so prominent when Saint Mary's fans lustily booed his every move. ESPN's Dave Flemming noted on the broadcast, "He has become public enemy No. 1 in this gym. He seems to be enjoying it."
Say what you want about Wesley's unintended role as chief agitator, but also recognize that the WAC player of the year will finish his career as one of the winningest and most complete players in Utah State history.
In fact, it's been a joyous ride for the 6-foot-7 forward who signed with Utah State all the way back in 2004. The top-seeded Aggies will begin postseason play this week in the WAC tournament in search of their first NCAA tournament win in a decade. And chances are Wesley will be letting it all hang out.
"I just go be me," Wesley said. "People think I'm arrogant or cocky, and I might be a little bit. It gives off a bad rap, but I don't mind it. They can call me public enemy No. 1, but I'm having fun."
For the 24-year-old Wesley, the amount of fun he's had isn't necessarily best quantified by the 1,698 points, 846 rebounds and 352 assists he has amassed during his career, but rather the five championship rings he'll finish with. Utah State captured its fourth straight WAC regular-season title and tied its single-season school record with 28 wins. Wesley's time with the program dates back to the 2004-05 season, and even on the team in which he was a redshirt, the Aggies claimed the Big West title.
Developing into the most crucial player in coach Stew Morrill's system was far from guaranteed, not with Wesley having gone three years without playing an organized game. After redshirting his freshman year, he served a two-year Mormon mission in Oaxaca, Mexico.
He picked up Spanish, but rarely a basketball during his time in Mexico. The outdoor basketball courts there were overrun with soccer players taking up the space anyway.
But Wesley was still supremely confident he could make an impact upon returning to school, as his four older brothers had already done much to instill in him a great feel for the game and a competitive nature.
"Being the youngest ballplayer in the family, he had to learn to pass," said Mekeli Wesley, a former standout BYU forward. "If he took bad shots, we would give it to him."
Said Tai: "My older brothers seem like they know everything. I was always getting criticized or coached."
Wesley, who was born in Utah and spent five years living with his family in Guam, grew up rooting for BYU, the school where his parents met and Mekeli earned Mountain West Conference player of the year honors as a senior. Named Utah's Mr. Basketball, Tai originally committed to BYU while at Provo High, but he learned a scholarship wouldn't be available to him during his redshirt season and so he changed his mind.
Morrill, a former teammate of Provo coach Craig Drury and the best man at his wedding, was able to convince Wesley to come to Logan. After returning from the mission, Wesley worked his way into the starting lineup and emerged as a matchup nightmare.
With Wesley on the block, opposing teams are given an option. They can double-team him and let him show off his excellent passing skills, or they can guard him one-on-one and try to stop him from scoring off back-to-the-basket moves that have resulted in a 59.4 percent field goal percentage this season -- 12th in the nation.
"He understands everything you're trying to do, every game plan, every offensive look, every concept," Morrill said. "He just gets it."
Wesley's success and the aggression in his game have frustrated opponents along the way, forcing his coaches to talk to him early on about staying out of foul trouble and keeping his cool. "Someone would hit me, and I would get so mad and want to hit them back and do something stupid," Wesley said. "It's about being mature and channeling your emotion. I'm so much more valuable when I'm on the court."
Utah State's 10-point win at Saint Mary's on Feb. 19, in which Wesley dominated the second half in a must-win BracketBusters game, showed just how much of an attention magnet he can be. After a hard collision with Gaels guard Matthew Dellavedova, Wesley got up in his face and exchanged words before teammate Tyler Newbold stepped in, and Morrill was forced to make a substitution.
Wesley checked back into the game and received boos from the crowd. He then proceeded to spin into a double-team and flipped the ball up and in, shoving aside a Gael on his way back down the court. After he was subsequently whistled for a foul on defense, he kept his arms raised straight up and his mouth agape in disbelief.
The crowd at McKeon Pavilion jeered. The ever-expressive Wesley proceeded to smile. "He's extremely competitive and very physical," Morrill said. "Sometimes that is mistaken for being borderline dirty, which I don't believe he is. When you're playing against him, you hate him. If he's on your team, you love him to death.
"He relishes when other teams or arenas aren't happy with him."
So expect the hard-nosed Wesley, the Aggies' leading scorer (14.5 ppg) and rebounder (7.9 rpg), to command plenty of attention as Utah State makes another postseason run. During last season's loss to New Mexico State in the WAC tournament championship game, Wesley had his nose broken and was forced to play with a mask in the NCAA tournament. He didn't feel comfortable, and it wasn't a good ending for the Aggies, who lost to Texas A&M in the first round.
Wesley had the nose broken again last month in practice, but he's pretty much healed for his one last chance under the bright lights.
Just make sure to catch his good side.
Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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