Utah State's basketball team lost four of its last six games after winning the Big West Conference regular-season co-championship and No. 1 seed to the league tournament. An El-Foldo? No. It's more like defining evidence of all that this group accomplished.
After winning 21 of its first 25 games, including beating Utah and BYU and winning the state's Oquirrh Bucket, and having an eight-game win streak to ensure a share of the conference title, the Aggies were a spent group. They had given all that a fairly limited team could give, had done more than anyone but themselves had expected them to do.
Coach Stew Morrill had nothing but good to say about this club that lost to graduation four starters and five major contributors to the Aggies' back-to-back 28-6 clubs of 1999-2000 and 2000-01.
"This team, quite honestly, has overachieved," Morrill said. "This has been one of my most pleasing years of coaching, with losing everything we lost and having all these new guys: to win the regular season and get to the finals and have a chance to go to the NCAAs — and we won 23 games," said Morrill. "I couldn't have imagined that going in."
Yes, even after being 21-4, a final record of 23-8 was still pretty darned impressive."I think we still accomplished quite a bit," said Mr. Aggie Basketball, senior Tony Brown, the all-time Aggie 3-point scorer whose 1,564 points place him seventh on the school career-scoring list.
Brown finished his senior season averaging 14.9 points, second to junior teammate Desmond Penigar's 17.2, which was second in the conference. Both were first-team All-BWC. Brown was sixth in scoring and led the league in 3-point percentage (.436), free-throw percentage (.857) and assist-turnover ratio (2.29).
"People picked us third, second in the league," observed Brown, a Cache Valley product who stayed home to give the local university four tremendous seasons that left him the winningest Aggie ever, having been part of 94 victories, two Big West Tournament championships, a regular-season Eastern Division crown, a league co-championship and three NCAA Tournament games, including a win.
"Not a lot of people wanted to see us at the top again, and we came out, and we were the top. We won 23 games. Not very many schools in Division I win that many games."
"I don't think anybody is disappointed in how our season went, but it's hard to lose, especially when it's your last game," Brown said.
"It's been a great four years. The wins speak for (themselves), how much fun I've had. Not many people get 60-70 wins in a four-year career, and I've got 90-something. It speaks for the coaches and the players coming out every day."
The Aggies ended with their second two-game losing streak of the season Tuesday, wearily falling to Montana State 77-69 in the "open round" of the National Invitation Tournament in Logan after falling 60-55 in the Big West Tournament championship game to UC Santa Barbara.
"It was very tough to get up emotionally," Brown said of the NIT game. He admitted his legs were weary the last several games, when his shooting percentage fell from .489 for the whole season to .359 in the final six games.
"Not enough push off of the legs," Brown analyzed about his jump shot deserting him. "That's what comes from playing, I guess, playing those many minutes."
Brown averaged 34.8 minutes a game for the 31, as the Ags had no strong backup for him, but he played 36-plus in five of the last six games. And felt every minute, apparently.
Senior Brennan Ray also had to log extra minutes in some very physical games late in the season as the defensive specialist at center and power forward, and his statistical production dipped.
Toward next season, the good news is that USU had just three seniors — center Jeremy Vague, who played some of his best ball in the last six games but was often limited by fouls, was the third. The bad news is that Brown, Ray and Vague were integral parts of a team that overachieved, probably its three best defenders.
For next season, the Ags bring in promising junior-college point guard Mark Brown from Saddleback in Southern California, leaving senior-to-be Ronnie Ross possibly free to take over Tony Brown's shooting-guard spot. Other returning starters will be Penigar and Toraino Johnson and Chad Evans.