Aggies limping as WAC tourney opens

Mar 14 2013 - 3:35pm

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LAS VEGAS -- Gene Wojciechowski of the Los Angeles Times called them "NCAA's longest of longshots."

In the 1991 NCAA Tournament's first round, Montana faced a UNLV team that went undefeated in an NCAA regular season for the first time in 12 seasons. The improbability of the Grizzlies beating the Rebels that year prompted Montana guard Roger Fasting to say that his team was "David's younger brother," with UNLV being "Goliath's dad."

Montana freshman guard Gary Kane said the matchup caused him to see Rebel guard Anderson Hunt, the 1990 NCAA Tournament's Most Outstanding Player, on pages of his Japanese economics book. On beating UNLV that year, the New York Times asked the question: "Can Anyone Do it?"

Duke did, in the Final Four. The Grizzlies, however, didn't come close against a team questioned to be the greatest in NCAA history, losing 99-65.

And Montana coach Stew Morrill wasn't surprised at all.

"Before this started, I said that if we won the regular season and our tournament that I wouldn't care if we played the Lakers," Morrill said more than two decades ago. "Hey, I didn't mean it, guys. UNLV is like a pro team."

Morrill indeed received his wish after achieving his objective of winning the Big Sky regular-season and tournament championships. Though it may not have been as daunting as beating UNLV (the USA Today that March gave the Grizzlies a billion-to-one shot to win the NCAA Tournament), Morrill still defied odds in reaching that point by winning the conference playoff with just seven players.

Three nights, three victories and just a handful of tired folks afterwards. It's the prospect Morrill faces again this century, as his fifth-seeded Utah State Aggies begins the WAC Tournament in Las Vegas with a contest against UT-Arlington tonight at 9:30 p.m.

Considering injuries that derailed the seasons of three USU starters, Morrill welcomes bringing his Aggies to the improbability his Grizzlies faced in a year that Magic Johnson was still playing for a Laker team.

He just doesn't want to elaborate on that -- yet.

"That's not an easy challenge, but before you worry about it, you worry about the one on Thursday," he said. "As much of a worrier as I am, what I've learned to do is try and worry about things that matter right now. I guarantee you if we get to the second or third night, I will worry adequately about it."

He has before, though: "It can be done," he was willing to say. "It's just a little harder."

That may be a fair argument for Morrill's 14th version of a USU club. There's the well-publicized absences of swingman Danny Berger (cardiac arrest) and forward Kyisean Reed (torn ACL) and the likely void still left this weekend by star guard Preston Medlin (fractured wrist). The Aggies have already lost not just to UT-Arlington twice, but also as many times this season to Louisiana Tech and Denver, their likely semifinal and final opponents, respectively. The Bulldogs were nationally ranked before losing to the Pioneers on Saturday. USU leading scorer Jarred Shaw is a combined 6-for-24 for 20 points, 11 rebounds and four turnovers against UT-Arlington.

But the Aggies are hopeful that the second-team all-WAC selection can be freed up on Thursday more than he was on March 2 in Arlington. With fellow all-conference selection Spencer Butterfield out due to a hip injury, the Mavericks often triple-teamed Shaw that night, as he shot just 3-of-11 with four turnovers in a 61-46 in a defeat.

Butterfield highlighted a return to the court last Thursday, however, with a 20-rebound night against Texas State. The 42 percent 3-point shooter this season went 3-of-5 from distance two nights later against UTSA, indicating that he may have returned to that form in time to let Shaw operate easier in Sin City.

Morrill didn't deny that USU played more confidently in their final homestand with Butterfield on the floor, though it's something the Aggies can't assume this weekend.

"I think there's some validity to that," he said. "It may add a little bit of confidence to us to have Spencer (against UT-Arlington), assuming he gets through the week OK and is able to go. That's almost a day-to-day concern. You kind of breathe a sigh of relief each day when practice is over and he's upright. We'll see if we can get him through a few practices."

He's certainly helped put the Aggies through some wins in recent weeks. Though USU is just 7-7 since losing Medlin and Reed at New Mexico State on Jan. 17, Butterfield has increased his scoring average by nearly three points and 2.3 rebounds per game -- the highest increase in both categories on the team -- in helping the Aggies outrebound their opponents in each of those games. (USU also remains fourth in the NCAA in rebound margin.)

Yet, his increase in minutes since then are barely third.

The same night after the Aggies' double-digit defeat in Denver after their loss in Las Cruces, Butterfield said he spent extended time in a Rocky Mountain hotel resolving to salvage the season.

"There was an opportunity to be taken advantage of," he said. "We still had some weapons; I didn't want (the season) to go to waste. No coaches or no one really talked to me specifically. It was just kind of a natural thing to take a leadership position, to take that challenge to be more effective."

The Aggies haven't been necessarily overly outward in their tournament hopes, however. A possible return from Medlin, whose return would mark the final week of his 6-to-8 week absence, has been veiled. Forward Ben Clifford and guard TeNale Roland scored career-highs against UTSA with 21 and 14 points, respectively, but Morrill has dismissed the idea that they have emerged as new weapons for the tournament. He said that their performances only should be associated with Saturday's win. And Clifford (mainly) echoed Morrill, who downplayed the adverse odds of a team beating another three straight times in a season as vocally as he has expressed more from the sophomore.

"It's hard, but that's not a free pass," Clifford said. "I don't buy into that much. The better team wins."

He acknowledged that in their loss to the Mavericks, USU played their worst WAC game without Butterfield, shooting just 30 percent.

But then he echoed his coach again.

"I can't put it to one person," he said. "We definitely have to play better to even have a chance."

 

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