Diversity mantra for rising Utah St.

Aggies take their gold where they find it, refine it till it shines

East at Greensboro, N.C.

NCAA Tournament

March 17, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

GREENSBORO, N.C. - Their point guard has several tattoos and a tongue ring, and had to adjust to a new culture when he left Harlem for a boarding school in the mountains of Arizona at age 13.

Their center came to the United States from Belgium not knowing a word of English. Their shooting guard lived 10 miles from the campus, unsure of whether he could play Division I college basketball.

Introducing the 12th-seeded Aggies of Utah State, who hope to continue telling their stories after playing fourth-seeded UCLA (22-8) today in the second round of the NCAA tournament's East Regional here at the Greensboro Coliseum.

Just as senior point guard Bernard Rock described his succession of moves as a "long journey," so has it been for the 28-5 Aggies.

Their 77-68 overtime victory over fifth-seeded Ohio State on Thursday was the school's first win in the NCAA tournament since 1970, after nine straight defeats that included an eight-point loss to Connecticut last year.

Yet they seem undaunted at the prospect of playing another of what power forward Shawn Daniels calls "the power schools, one of the ones you see on television all the time."

Just ask Rock.

"We feel pretty confident," he said yesterday. "A basketball game is a basketball game. It doesn't matter who we play. Two teams in our conference [the Big West] played them this year, and they played them pretty tight."

Rock sort of typifies the Aggies. His road to Logan, Utah, began when he left New York City to follow a cousin to Arizona, excited about the possibility of riding horses. It was the crickets that nearly sent him back home.

"It was pretty tough coming from New York," recalled Rock. "A lot of stuff goes on in New York. When I first went out there, it was kind of hard to sleep. I wasn't hearing sirens and gun shots. I was hearing crickets."

It was difficult for senior center Dimitri Jorssen. but for different reasons. Jorssen had heard about Utah State from a former Aggie whom he had played with in Belgium. Jorssen wound up at Lassen Junior College in California for one year, trying to decipher English through a bunch of different accents.

"There were guys from California and Texas and New York, and it was just a big mumble," said Jorssen.

The junior college route was taken by eight Utah State players.

Senior small forward Curtis Bobb wanted to go to Colorado State coming out of high school outside Denver, but didn't have the grades. Daniels, a 6-6, 260-pound senior, weighed almost 300 pounds when he graduated from high school, turning off most college coaches.

In fact, only Rock was recruited by big-time schools such as UCLA.

"In football," he said.

He was the kind of player coach Stew Morrill was looking for after replacing Larry Eustachy (now at Iowa State) two years ago. Morrill, who was previously the head coach at Colorado State and Montana, knew it would be easier to turn around the Aggies with junior college transfers.

"What we really sold was unselfishness, coachability and buying into the defense," said Morrill.

None of those traits is exactly prevalent in junior college basketball. As Daniels said yesterday: "In junior college, it's a lot different. Defense wasn't really a big thing. Coach Morrill told us: "If you don't play defense, you don't play."

They've done well enough so that, with one more win, Utah State will be a Sweet 16 team.

And, by then, an old story.

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