Nevada-Utah St. Preview
They may be the Rodney Dangerfields of college basketball, playing in a conference that doesn't get much respect these days and in a state where they're not even the best team to take the court.
All Utah State does is win, which is why the Aggies (20-2, 9-0 Western Athletic Conference) are No. 22 in the latest Associated Press poll after winning 15 straight, including Saturday night's double-overtime thriller at Hawaii.
"I'm sure when people see the Top 25 now and see Utah State they say, 'What the crud is going on?'" Aggies senior guard Tyler Newbold said Tuesday. "Especially on the East Coast, I'm sure they don't know a lot about us."
That could change with three of their next six games being televised nationally, starting Wednesday night against Nevada (8-13, 5-3), which has won four in a row.
Of course, coach Stew Morrill knows nothing is guaranteed.
"It's great to be ranked, but I told (the players) to enjoy it while it lasts and try to make it last because ... if you get beat, especially in a non-BCS conference situation, often times you move out of the rankings in a hurry," Morrill said.
It can only help that four of Utah State's next five games are at home, at the 10,270-seat Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, an arena that some rank behind only those of Duke and Kansas for sheer electricity.
Start with the coziness of the Spectrum, where the students are close enough to whisper in opponents' ears. Except they don't whisper. They taunt and tease, egged on by a cheat-sheet called The Refraction that often provides intimate details that get magnified by a rowdy student body.
Last year when one opposing player faced indecent exposure charges, they chanted "keep your pants on" throughout the game.
The students know nicknames, Facebook posts and even where players were born.
"If there's info out there, we'll get on it," said Matt Sonnenberg, a 25-year old senior journalism major and sports editor of the Utah Statesman who started printing The Refraction tabloid four years ago.
If the students don't get to opponents, Wild Bill - aka Shirtless Bill Sproat - usually does.
The 300-pounder has been known to dress up in like cupid, a hula dancer, snorkeler, pirate, or even a Chippendale dancer to distract opponents shooting free throws.
"He comes out in some pretty funny stuff and gets everyone in the (arena) laughing and going nuts," Newbold said. "Students love it. They're into it. It's what makes it so great."
It all works to create an atmosphere than is loud and raunchy.
"It's unreal," said 6-7 senior forward Tai Wesley, who leads Utah State with a 14.3 scoring average. "It is crazy. The floor is shaking when we're making big plays or fighting back into a game or going on a big run. It's electric. Hands are swaying, the music's going, the crowd is yelling. It's definitely one of most fun places to play in the nation."
It's also one of the toughest.
Utah State has won 15 straight overall, the third-longest active streak in the nation behind Ohio State (22) and Coastal Carolina (18).
But that looks paltry compared to the Aggies' home record.
Utah State has won 26 straight home games, the third-longest active streak behind Duke (31) and Kentucky (29). Overall the Aggies have won 78 of their last 80 home games. The Aggies have won a school-record 28 straight Western Athletic Conference home games, with the last home conference loss coming March 3, 2007, against Fresno State.
Utah State's only two losses this season have come against ranked opponents, on the road. They lost 78-72 on Nov. 17 at BYU when the Cougars were ranked No. 23. They lost 68-51 on Dec. 4 at Georgetown, when the Hoyas were ranked No. 14.
The BYU game hurt more, considering both Newbold and Wesley grew up near Provo.
"That's one game we all wish we had back," said Wesley, who verbally committed at BYU only to have his scholarship fall apart. "It was a heartbreaker game. We played them tough, down to the wire, at their place."
Now the Cougars are 20-2, ranked No. 9, and "Jimmermania" is in full swing as the All-America point guard continues to put up big numbers.
"We don't like BYU; it's not a secret," Wesley admits. "But Jimmer Fredette is not one of those guys you just hate on the court. He's not a punk. So anything he's getting right now, we're happy for him. If he was a punk on the court, it would be different, but he's a class act, and you've got to respect that."
Are the Aggies getting the respect they deserve?
"That's kind of a touchy subject," Wesley said. "At times I don't think we get the respect. I don't want to say we like that but we're used to it. We're used to being the underdog in the national perspective. We're OK with that."
It's why Morrill tries not to get too excited about rankings.
"You've got to win a boatload of games to even get considered, then if you lose one, you're out," he said. "That's why you don't want to take it too seriously. It's fun. The kids should feel good about it and they should try to make it last by not losing."