Utah St.-Louisiana Tech Preview
The last time Louisiana Tech was this good, Karl Malone patrolled the courts on the university's Ruston campus.
Second-year coach Michael White might not have a leading man like Malone on his roster, but the program is back among the nation's best thanks to an ensemble cast that hasn't lost in more than two months.
Louisiana Tech moved into the Top 25 on Monday for the first time since a 13-week run during the 1984-85 season, edging Colorado State for the No. 25 spot. The Bulldogs (24-3, 14-0 Western Athletic Conference) are on a 16-game winning streak and haven't lost since an 80-72 defeat at McNeese State on Dec. 12.
Louisiana Tech has two home games this week to bask in its newfound popularity - on Thursday against Utah State (19-7, 9-5) and Saturday against San Jose State.
"It's crazy to think about how long it's been," said White, 35. "It's a neat accomplishment. Our kids are excited about it. But does it make us any better on Thursday against Utah State? No. We need to handle this correctly."
Malone was the unquestioned superstar for the Bulldogs when they advanced to the NCAA's round of 16 in 1985. White has put together the program's current run with a deep team that's led by guard Raheem Appleby, who scores a team-high 14.7 points per game.
Appleby said White's subtle leadership and trust in his players has led to success. The Bulldogs often use 11 players in the regular rotation each game, employing a high-energy approach that has worn opponents down.
"We don't have 100 offensive sets or slow the ball down very often," Appleby said. "We're built to score in transition and that's why we don't really have any stars. Our offense doesn't go through any one person, we just get it out on the break and make things happen."
White has built Louisiana Tech's program quickly since coming to Ruston in 2011. The Bulldogs finished 18-16 last season, including a 6-8 mark in the WAC, but made a conference tournament run to the finals before losing to New Mexico State. That late-season success was an indication of things to come.
"We've got a good group of guys who have sold out to defending," White said. "We're offensively challenged at times. On nights we make jump shots, we're pretty good. Some nights we're just glad to get off the court one point better than the other team."
Louisiana Tech is trying to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991.
The Bulldogs might have to win the WAC tournament to assure a spot in the field. They're No. 52 in the NCAA's most recent RPI rankings and have not played a particularly difficult schedule.
White said his team's focus is just winning more games and earning the No. 1 seed in the WAC tournament.
"This (national ranking) is really just another hurdle," White said. "It's another obstacle that could deter focus or it could provide more encouragement about reminding us about how we've got to keep improving."
Louisiana Tech leads second-place Denver by two games in the loss column with four games remaining in the regular season, including the finale at Denver on March 9. That's why it could be key for the Bulldogs to take care of business at home this week.
Utah State is certainly no pushover, having won six straight in this series before narrow defeats in the last two meetings.
Louisiana Tech beat the Aggies 72-70 in the WAC tournament last year, then won 51-48 at Utah State on Jan. 26. Brandon Gibson led the Bulldogs with 20 points and Appleby hit a key 3-pointer late as the Aggies shot a season-low 27.3 percent.
"We're quite a bit better offensively, but they're on their home court and they're going to play better than they did here," Aggies coach Stew Morrill said. "It's going to take an awfully good effort to keep ourselves in the ball game."
Louisiana Tech has won 16 straight at home, including all 12 this season.
Utah State, still playing without leading scorer Preston Medlin (broken wrist), is coming off an 80-71 home win over Illinois State. Center Jarred Shaw had 18 points and 11 rebounds, and he's scoring 18.6 per game on 61.7 percent shooting in his last eight.
Shaw had a game-high 21 points along with 14 boards in the first meeting with the Bulldogs.
This is the last regular-season matchup between these schools as conference rivals. Utah State is going to the Mountain West next season while Louisiana Tech is set to join Conference USA.