Big West Top 10 Countdown: No. 2

We're still a few months away before the games actually begin but Big West fan J. Kline gives us his early predictions of what's in store for the 2003-04 basketball season.

#2 Utah State
Predicted Record: 11-7

"We are not going to win the league every year, and the sooner people realize that they will probably be less disappointed." - Stew Morrill.

USU will be at, or near the top of the BWC; this has come to be expected. The reasons are sound: excellent team defense, rebounding, few t.o.'s, tough home-court, and a steady influx of mature, talented players. They have the league's top returning PG and PF and are always well coached. But, as high as Morrill set the standard, it will be tough to live up to expectations in Cache Valley this year, without Desmond Penigar (All-BWC 1st team) leading the offense.

Morrill's had 5 fabulous years, his .738 win% in the BWC ranks 2nd only to Tarkanian among coaches of significant tenure. And it all starts with defense, rebounding, and controlling the ball. Senior PG Mark Brown (all-BWC h.m.) does the latter, leading the league in assist/to ratio. Brown is quick, can penetrate, dish, and hit open 3s. He is rather short, so getting open looks is a question. But, Brown will venture inside, draw contact, and nail his FT's. Last year, Ronnie Ross served as back-up PG and SG, often giving USU a two-PG look. This year, JC soph Chris Huber (formerly at Utah) should occupy a similar role. Ross was a decent shooter, but tended to disappear in pressure situations, shooting 23% FG in USU's 6 BWC losses. Huber is a highly touted prospect who's had 4 years to mature physically (LDS mission + greyshirt @ Utah + JC frosh). He's coming off a foot injury and may need to adjust a bit to D-1, but he could be USU's biggest upgrade as Ross was perhaps their weakest link.

Junior PF Spencer Nelson (all-BWC h.m.) led the BWC in rpg and rpm (reb's per minute) and a major part of USU being #6 in D-1 reb margin. Nelson not only got his own rebs, but volleyed innumerable tips and deflections, as well. He's a quick jumper with great hands and pound-for-pound stronger than most players at 225 lbs. He was primarily at 5, and could be even more effective this season at 4. However, there is a trade-off between playing undersized at 5, but opposite Desmond Penigar (who drew the attention of defenses), and playing at 4, but being a focal point of the defense. Nelson's worked to improve his outside game, but opponents may be relieved if he starts hoisting it. Of all the BWC's individual stats, most impressive was Nelson's 1.90 pps, due to converting 65% FG and getting FT's more frequently than anyone else in the league. This is all inside work. It's hard to imagine he'd be more effective by operating further from the hoop.

2003-04 Big West Projections
No. 10 Long Beach State
No. 9 Cal State Northridge
No. 8 UC Riverside
No. 7 Idaho
No. 6 Cal Poly SLO
No. 5 Pacific
No. 4 Cal State Fullerton
No. 3 UC Irvine
No. 2 Utah State

Nelson's biggest room for improvement is managing PF's, but aggressive and physical play is bound to haunt him at times. Even with foul trouble, he was remarkably effective and deserved to be at least 2nd team all-BWC last year. USU's front-line will miss Penigar, but it will be deeper. RS-senior C Mike Ahmad will provide a post-up offensive threat and RS-junior PF/C Ian McVey likewise defensively. Soph F Nate Harris is versatile, can guard 5, 4, and (some) 3 and should combine with Nelson to rule the boards. Elder statesman F Chad Evans may back-up at 4 and 3. JC junior C Cassiano Mattheus (Brazilian) will likely RS. Overall, rebounding and defense should be strong as usual.

Senior wing Cardell Butler and JC junior wing Jason Williams could be the keys to this offense. Butler shot erratically last season, but came on very strong at the end, improving in all facets. USU will need him to play like he did in the BWT (i.e. scoring inside and out). Williams is getting his first taste of D-1 and has a rep as a good shooter. But, they will be primarily responsible for picking up Penigar's slack, which will be tough. DP was the best offensive player in the league, and the best on USU, by far. Although criticized for not passing and road-inconsistency, he could also be a scoring machine, carrying USU on his back. Further, they will miss Toraino Johnson (all-BWC h.m.) who was a good all-around SF. Not a major 3-pt shooter, Johnson was deadly from 15-18 ft. Now, it seems, USU's best perimeter shooters are Brown (short; needs to distribute the ball), Huber (new to D-1), Williams (new to D-1), and Butler (yet to show consistency). If Ahmad can establish a strong low-post threat, it should help, but that's not a guarantee, either. And if the offense struggles, there's no Penigar to bail them out.

Still, Logan will be a very tough place to play, with tremendous fan support and the added difficulty of altitude adjustment. USU has probably the eldest roster in the BWC, which doesn't hurt, either. The roster is almost exclusively composed of JC transfers, LDS grayshirts, and those who are both. They range from about 21 to 25 (Nate Harris being the youngest) and most are 22 or 23. As long as Morrill draws heavily from these recruiting pools, USU will escape the cyclical peaks and valleys of experience, due to recruiting true-freshmen. But, will USU escape the ire of Cache Valley if they don't reach the peak of the BWC this season?