History repeats for Utah State College basketball: An NCAA qualifier in the 1960s, '70s and '80s, the Aggies promise not to 'back off' when they end a 10-year tourney absence against Maryland.

March 10, 1998|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Utah is a state of 90-degree angles, but it has always had a well-rounded presence in the NCAA basketball tournament.

A fourth straight appearance for Rick Majerus will be Utah's 20th in the NCAAs. It's down now, but Brigham Young has been to the NCAAs 18 times. In 1968, Dick Motta guided Weber State to the first of its 11 bids.

There have been eras when Utah State has been envious of its neighbors down Interstate 15, but it will always have a distinction they'll never be able to match: the Aggies played in the very first NCAA tournament, in 1939.

Utah State returned to the NCAAs three times in the 1960s, four times in the 1970s and three times in the 1980s, and it will end a decade-long absence from the national tournament Thursday (2: 42 p.m.), when the Aggies meet Maryland in a West Regional first-round game at Sacramento, Calif.

A No. 13 seed, Utah State beat Pacific in Sunday's tournament final in the Big West Conference. The bad news in the conference two years ago was that it lost Nevada-Las Vegas to the Western Athletic Conference. The good news for Utah State was that coach Larry Eustachy turned down an offer to coach the Runnin' Rebels.

"There is a great tradition here," Eustachy said yesterday. "I coached at Ball State, and you can't match Indiana for basketball interest, but we're a close second."

Eustachy, 42, is in his fifth season in Logan, and he's got the best winning percentage in the program's history. Two-thirds of the student population is Mormon -- freshman forward Brandon Birch's career was delayed by his mission last year -- and Eustachy has relied heavily on transfers, including ace point guard Marcus Saxon.

Eustachy played junior college ball, and so did five of his seven regulars. His roster has eight first-year players, and only one, guard Justin Jones, has been in the program as long as three seasons.

"It's not the way you want to do it," said Eustachy, whose team has been lifted by four seniors. "Next year is going to be the first in about a 20-year rebuilding program. To constantly have to be rebuilding isn't the way you like it, but we're not a Duke or a Maryland or a North Carolina.

"We have to be creative in our recruiting. The pool to recruit great high school players with the grades is too large for us."

Eustachy was an assistant for five seasons at Mississippi State in the early 1980s, and he never severed his recruiting connections in the South.

Donnie Johnson, the 6-foot-6 center, is from Selma, Ala. Saxon, whom Maryland coach Gary Williams surely learned plenty about yesterday, is from Columbia, S.C. Forward Pharoah Davis is from California, but he played with Saxon at Chipola Junior College in Florida.

"One of my former assistants was the coach at Chipola, and that was the connection there," Eustachy said. "Saxon signed with Arkansas, that's how good he was, but he didn't graduate from junior college. He came here and had to pay his own way for a year [1995-96]. That's feasible here. That's not feasible at Stanford."

Saxon was good as a junior, great as a senior.

"I don't care where you are, you win with good guards, and he [Saxon] learned how to run a team this year," Eustachy said. "He's shooting 45 percent on three-pointers, and he really worked hard on his perimeter game.

"He's the best player I've ever coached. The Celtics have told me he might go in the first round."

The front line is tiny and the Aggies have one of the best three-point percentages in the nation (.435), but they take fewer than 10 shots a game beyond the arc. Their game is about penetrating and getting good shots or to the free-throw line. They play mostly man-to-man defense, picking up at midcourt.

The Aggies might have been the only team in the nation that wanted to go to Boise, Idaho, which is a four-hour drive from Logan, but they're delighted to be going to Sacramento. Utah State hasn't won an NCAA game since 1970, when it lost in the West Regional final to UCLA, but it thinks it can end that drought.

"We could get pounded because Maryland's bigger," Eustachy said. "But I know we won't back off."

Utah State at a glance

Location: Logan, Utah

Nickname: Aggies

Enrollment: 20,808

Established: 1888

Coach: Larry Eustachy, 98-52 in five seasons

1997-98 record: 25-7, 13-3 in Big West Conference

Top scorer: Guard Marcus Saxon, 17.2

Top rebounder: Center Donnie Johnson, 7.6

Top assists: Saxon, 4.1

NCAA history: 12th appearance, first since 1988

Best NCAA finish: Reached West Regional final in 1970, lost to eventual champion UCLA

Famous alumni: Football's Merlin Olsen and Cornell Green. Green was a five-time Pro Bowl defensive back during his 13-year career with the Dallas Cowboys, but he averaged 24.3 points for the Aggies in the 1962 NCAA tournament.

Md. vs. Utah St.

What: West Regional, first round

When: Thursday

Where: Sacramento, Calif. Time: 2: 42 p.m. EST TV/radio: Chs. 13, 9/WBAL (1090 AM)

The line: Maryland by 10

Pub Date: 3/10/98

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