As Utah State prepares to say bon voyage to the Big West Conference, those closely associated with the league predict that the Aggies will go out with a flourish.
Big West men's basketball coaches picked Pacific first and USU second, while those who cover the teams predict the aforementioned schools will tie for the conference title, as they did last season at 17-1.
"I was shocked that we were picked where we were, with us losing two all-league guards [Mark Brown and Cardell Butler]," Utah State coach Stew Morrill said. "Our backcourt remains a question mark. We have inexperience in our backcourt, it's an unknown. I'm not saying we're going to be bad.
"We'll be a good rebounding team. Maybe we're not quite as athletic as we've been in the past."
Morrill has legitimate concerns about a guard line that features junior college transfers and a freshman fresh off a two-year LDS Church mission.
However, Morrill's illustrious track record includes five straight seasons of 23 or more wins, three league championships and five post-season appearances.
The Aggies were 25-4 in 2003-04, eventually cracking the national rankings.
"I'm excited to see what we've got," said Spencer Nelson, a second-team all-league forward and Big West Hustle Player of the Year last season. "Anyone on this team is capable of scoring. That's the great thing about the balance and depth we have, everyone is looking for the next best shot."
The 6-foot-8 Nelson and all-league center Nate Harris (6-7) provide the foundation for whatever success Utah State will enjoy in 2004-05. Add returning starting forward Jason Williams (6-6) and USU has three returning players who combined for 30 points and 16 rebounds a game.
However, Williams may be battling for court time. Not only does the veteran Aggie frontline include forward John Neil (2.6 ppg) and center Ian McVey (1.8 ppg), Morrill has great expectations for Cassiano Matheus, a 6-10 redshirt junior center.
"It's exciting when we are able to get the three of us and get some size out there," Harris said of playing with Nelson and Matheus. We've been playing together and its great to know we're getting more comfortable with each other."
Utah State lost nearly 25 points with the graduation of its backcourt. The guards are the key to the Aggies' season.
Early indications following two exhibition games, a 125-72 blowout of Puget Sound and a 63-50 victory over a veteran, physical EA Sports team, are promising. While redshirt junior David Pak, returning senior Calvin Brown and freshman Jaycee Carroll turned the ball over 10 times to Puget Sound, they only two turnovers against EA Sports.
"David Pak has to play well for us to be successful," Morrill said of his redshirt point guard. "When you start a freshman, it tells you we're inexperienced."
Carroll's performance, including 40 points and six assists in two exhibition games, has been an unexpected bonus. Carroll, who filled up the basket at Evanston (Wyo.) High School to the tune of 39.4 points a game, hasn't shown any rust from his two-year LDS Church mission.
"He's running around making mistakes, but he's doing some good things," Morrill said. "Sometimes I forget he's a freshman. I tell him things I'm sure he doesn't know what I'm talking about. We were excited when we got him, but I wouldn't have predicted he would start."
The wild card in Morrill's plans is redshirt, junior college transfer Marques Crane, who remains suspended for alleged marijuana use. Crane, who averaged 16 points at Saddleback Junior College, and Williams were suspended this past summer, but Williams was reinstated when charges were dropped.
With a solid frontcourt and the reputation of being nearly unbeatable in the Smith Spectrum - they were 15-1 last year - the Aggies appear on track for another run at the BWC title. Next season, the Aggies will enter the WAC. For now, Morrill would like to leave a lasting impression on the Big West.
"The whole league is going to be a whole lot of fun," Morrill said. "Last year, I was the guy who said 13-5 would win the league. If someone told me that 17-1 would get a tie, I'd have said they were nuts."
Predicted finish in conference: 1st (media).
Top newcomer: After scoring nearly 40 points game in high school, Jaycee Carroll, a 6-foot-2 freshman guard from Evanston, Wyo., has shown no ill effects athletically from serving a two-year LDS Church mission.
Key loss: Mark Brown and Cardell Butler. Upon graduating, this backcourt duo took with them 25 points, nearly seven assists a game and years of experience.
Top returning players: list their names, height, position and key stats: Nate Harris, 6-foot-7 forward, 11.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.5 apg; Spencer Nelson, 6-foot-8 forward, 11.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.8 apg; Jason Williams, 6-foot-7 forward, 6.7 ppg, 2.2 rpg.
Last year: 25-4 overall, 17-1 BWC
Why they will win: Utah State coach Stew Morrill has always been able to fill holes by successfully recruiting junior college athletes. The Aggies front court, anchored by Nate Harris and Spencer Nelson, is among the best in the Big West Conference.
Why they won't win: While the Aggies have a talented front court, they don't have a dominating post player. Also, the team's inexperienced guard line will take some time to mesh with the veterans.