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March 15, 2006

Utah State has been a pesky first-round foe

There must be something in the air because I woke up this morning with that cheesy "One Shining Moment" song rattling around the elevator of my head. You know the tune-the one that CBS Sports uses with its NCAA Tournament montages. Call it March Madness. Call it allergens. Call it a maddening propensity for bad songs to get log-jammed in my brain, but something is afoot.

That something, of course, is the 63-game frenzy known as the Big Dance. And the Huskies begin dancing Thursday night in their own maddened state having lost in the Pac-10 Tourney quarterfinals to the sharp-shooting Ducks.

The fifth-seeded Dawgs are looking to start their run on a good note against twelfth-seeded Utah State. The Aggies (23-8, 11-5), who finished second in the Western Athletic Conference standings and in the WAC Tournament, hail from Logan, a sleepy town nestled in the northern Wasatch Mountains. For those of you who are more cinematically-inclined than geographically-oriented, the campus sits 30 miles south of Preston, Idaho, the home of Napoleon Dynamite. While I can't vouch for the Aggies' bow hunting skills or nunchuck skills-"Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills" according to Napoleon-the USU squad has turned a few heads with its shooting.

Utah State is fourth in the nation in field goal percentage (.498) and 3-point FG percentage (.405). Priority one for the Aggies' patient offense is getting the ball inside to All-WAC forward Nate Harris, who is averaging 17.2 points on 62-percent shooting. While slightly overshadowed by Nevada's Nick Fazekas, Harris was the WAC's most automatic scorer, connecting at a .596 clip in conference play.

"We're unselfish and we work the ball around and don't settle for mediocre shots," said sophomore guard Jaycee Carroll, the team's second leading scorer averaging 16.1 points.

The only starting underclassmen on a veteran squad, Carroll has connected on 91 of 201 3-point attempts (.453) as the Aggies set a school record by knocking down 229 3-balls (7.4 per game) this season. Built in the same mold as the Huskies' Ryan Appleby, Carroll is the primary gunner, having taken more shots than Harris. But point guard David Pak and small forward Durrall Peterson have been even more trey-oriented, with the vast majority of their shots coming from behind the arc.

Under the guidance of head coach Stew Morrill, Utah State has quietly compiled the fourth-best winning percentage (.781) in the country over the last seven years, trailing only Duke (.857), Gonzaga (.822) and Illinios (.793). In their first season in the WAC after a long affiliation with the Big West, USU is making its fifth appearance in the NCAA Tourney in Morrill's eighth year at the helm. Morrill encouraged the university to move to the more competitive WAC in part to better prepare his team for the NCAA Tournament and improve its seeding possibilities.

After forcing overtime in the 70-63 loss to No. 21 Nevada in the WAC championship game, the Aggies were rewarded with their highest seed since 2001. With a tradition of restocking with junior college players-they have eight transfers on this year's squad-Utah State has proven to be a pesky first-round opponent. Last year the Aggies traveled to Boise, the site of the Huskies' opening wins, and led third-seeded Arizona at halftime. But the Wildcats were able to frazzle USU, limiting them to one field goal in the first 7:34 of the second half, on the way to a 66-53 victory.

In 2003 the Aggies, a fifteen-seed, took Kansas to the wire before bowing out 64-61. The last time USU earned a 12-seed they upset Ohio State 77-68 before getting sent home by UCLA in the second round of the 2001 Tourney.

"They're a very good basketball team and they're very efficient," coach Lorenzo Romar said of a team averaging just 12.9 turnovers per game this season. "They won't beat themselves."

The youngest Aggie starter is 21-years old. Even Carroll, the sophomore, is 22 with his college career delayed following a Mormon mission. At 29, Pak has nine years seniority of the Huskies' point guard, Justin Dentmon. After serving time for a rape charge in his native southern California, the 6-foot-2 senior has settled down in northern Utah and married a member of the USU women's basketball team, Jessica Freeman. Center Cass Matheus, a shot-altering presence in the lane at 6-foot-10, is a 24-year old Brazilian by way of South Plains (Texas) College.

"I think that's a great advantage for them," Romar said of the older opponents. "When you have that experience in terms of age and playing time-not to mention that they're returning four of their starters, I believe, from last year, which was a very good basketball team-I think it's a plus for them."

Harris, a 6-foot-7, 225-pound senior from nearby Smithfield, uses a variety of post moves for his accurate production. Adept at pivoting and getting free on the blocks, Harris gets a number of touches. The only WAC player to average at least 17.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game this season, the fifth-year senior is among the top 10 in seven categories for conference games.

"He's just kind of a throwback player," said Morrill. "He's just an old-time basketball player. He's got great hands, a tremendous feel for the game and has the ability to finish around the basket."

In describing Harris, Romar invoked the name of a Husky nemesis. "He's a little bit like David Lucas from Oregon State," said the fourth-year UW coach. "He's just going to find a way to put it in the basket. He has an assortment of ways to do it and they have an assortment of ways as a team to get him the ball. And we know how much David Lucas presented problems for us."

The improved interior defense this season is one of the most promising signs as the Huskies enter the Tournament. In recent weeks, the Dawgs have held two all-conference big men to sub-par games. Stanford center Matt Haryasz was limited to 10 points on 3-of-7 shooting, while Cal's burly forward, Leon Powe, was held six points under his average on only seven shots with quick help-side defense. The next week, one of the hottest players in the Pac-10, Ivan Radenovic, was kept to a quiet eight points.

Utah State has been compared to Washington State by some observers based on the perception of a methodical pace. While each school posted impressive defensive numbers-USU held opponents to 42-percent shooting-the offensive aspect may be a misnomer. The Aggies are a consistently better-shooting squad even with Josh Akognon's second-half tear at Edmundson Pavilion. And neither team is allergic to pushing the ball.

"We get accused sometimes of playing slowdown, and that really isn't true," Morrill said of his team, which averaged 72.5 points a game. "We've been near the top (of the conference) in scoring."

Brandon Roy noted that WSU didn't play the Huskies in as plodding a fashion as their reputation. "The thing that caught us off guard with Washington State is we were expecting a slow game, but they got a ton of transition points on us. They took quick shots against us," said the captain, noting that the Cougs seemed to play a different style against other Pac-10 foes.

"Utah State, I think they're a good team, but we're not going to anticipate them slowing it down. We're going to try to force our tempo no matter what."

Roy isn't apprehensive of a half-court game from the Aggies or any opponent in the Tournament, a place where easy buckets are usually few and far between. "We beat UCLA two games in the Pac-10 and they played a SLOW pace against us. And if you watched the Cal game, Cal just throws the ball around for 30 seconds and then tries to go into Leon Powe," Roy said of two rivals that the Huskies fell two points shy of sweeping in four games.

One Achilles heel for the Dawgs has been a hot-hitting 3-point sniper. Whether it was Hassan Adams' unexpected 5-of-7 accuracy, Chris Matthews in Pullman, or Chamberlain Oguchi's 6-for-10 second-half explosion last week, streaky shooting has sunk their efforts in four of six losses this season. While Pak (.423) and Peterson (.383) have been accurate from the arc along with Carroll for the Aggies, none of the three have the quickness or athleticism of the likes of Adams or Oguchi. Contesting any perimeter shot will be a key for the Huskies.

More good news for nervous Husky fans is the fact that USU has slumped recently from tripletown. Carroll had a streak of 20 consecutive games with a least one 3-point basket snapped in the regular season finale and was shut out in the conference title game. Over the last four contest, Carroll is just 2-for-17 (.118) while the team hit just 16 of 66 triples (.242). In fact, Utah State has converted just four 3-balls in each of the last four games after averaging 7.9 makes previously.

The Aggies have a 4-2 record against teams in the 2006 NCAA Tourney, with a Bracket Buster victory over Northwestern (La.) State and two squeakers in home-and-away match-ups with Oral Roberts. USU had a 1-2 record against Nevada, the WAC champs, which lost to UCLA 67-56 in the second game of the Wooden Classic. The Huskies, who defeated New Mexico in Wooden Classic opener, posted a 6-2 record versus Tourney teams, avenging losses to Arizona and Cal.

The only common opponent for USU and Washington was the University of Idaho. Both teams blitzed the Vandals early, with the Aggies taking a 44-17 halftime advantage en route to their biggest blowout of the season. The Dawgs' 22-point lead at the intermission ballooned to 37 points in the second half as they coasted to a 90-67 victory.

TOMORROW: We'll take a look at the Huskies' preparations for the clash in San Diego, scheduled for approximately 7 p.m. PST, as well as the history of the 5-12 seed game and a few key match-ups for the Dawgs.


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