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Here comes the school that has it all in WAC basketball

by Tom Scott

Bio | Follow: @thescottslant


Posted on February 11, 2010 at 8:28 AM


Thursday, February 11, 2010.
If Boise State wants to show that last week’s adventure against Idaho was an aberration, no better way to do it than with an upset of first-place Utah State. But how long a shot is that? Prepare for a lesson in floor communication tonight. I mean, this perennially powerful USU team plays together—and it always improves as the season goes. The Aggies were rocked in January when they dropped their first two conference games, including a 22-point loss at Louisiana Tech. They’ve won eight straight since. Utah State has all the key guys back from last season except Gary Wilkinson, and they’re much older than the average basketball team because of the LDS mission factor. The Aggies are mentally tough, a trait that usually manifests itself on the boards. They got the Broncos down early in Logan last month and didn’t let ‘em up for air, winning 81-59.
What will it be like in the stands tonight? There will be some deflation after what happened last Saturday night. But that won’t matter to 150 or so Utah State students who are busing up for the game. Pretty good for a Thursday night. Those 150 will make enough noise for 1500—and that will provide the Aggies a significant boost. There were 7,587 fans at Taco Bell Arena for last year’s Boise State-Utah State game, a 66-56 Bronco victory that snapped a 19-game Aggie winning streak.  But that was on a Saturday, and it was the week before the Bronco-Vandal game instead of the week after.
Idaho followed up its annihilation of Boise State last week with a valiant effort against Nevada last night at Cowan Spectrum. After trailing the Wolf Pack by 16 points early in the second half, the Vandals roared back to take a five-point lead late. All that was for naught, though, as Pack star Armon Johnson drove the length of the floor and hit a four-footer with 2.9 seconds left, was fouled, and made the free throw to give Nevada a 67-66 victory. Idaho coach Don Verlin, while not pointing to that late call on Johnson’s bucket, said, "I don't care if the WAC fines me or not. That was a poorly officiated game. Idaho is no longer a doormat. We're a contender in this league and the officials need to figure it out." Cha-ching.
WAC commissioner Karl Benson was on Idaho SportsTalk yesterday and acknowledged that if anything actually develops on the Pac-10 expansion front, it would affect the Mountain West one way or another—and, therefore, the WAC. The Mountain West could easily lose at least two of its “big three” schools, TCU, Utah and BYU. Then the trickle-down would kick in. Said Benson: “It would be a case of WAC teams going to the Mountain West…or Mountain West teams coming to the WAC.” Interesting concept. Would there be an emergency merger?
Of course, it’s ridiculous to talk about the Pac-10’s expansion possibilities when all this exploration may go nowhere. But it’s fun to think out loud. Let’s say the Mountain West lost all of its “big three” to a combination of Pac-10 and Big 12 shuffling. Then, if the Mountain West is indeed calling the shots, it would have to expand—and quick. Football drives the wagon, so Boise State and Fresno State would be automatic. Then it would probably be Nevada, eliciting an interesting response from UNLV. With the Mountain West at nine, what do the remaining six WAC schools do? Would the Mountain West come to the rescue of three of them and form a 12-team conference? Or would what’s left of the WAC have to start thinking along the lines of Montana, Portland State and Sacramento State? Discuss amongst yourselves.
Ramp-up for the Winter Olympics: KTVB’s Mark Johnson was trying to figure out why the U.S. snowboard team press officer recognized him at yesterday’s news conference. Then the guy refreshed Johnson’s memory. It was Nick Alexakos, a linebacker at Idaho from 1996-99. Alexakos pulled some strings to get Johnson a solo interview outdoors with U.S. snowboardcross stars and Idahoans Graham Watanabe and Nate Holland. Sports Illustrated picks Watanabe for the silver medal in Vancouver and Holland for the bronze. Holland told Johnson, “I think they missed it by one spot for each of us.” Watanabe and Holland will be competing Monday.
It’s all been predicated on defense this season for the Idaho Steelheads, and there’s not a more shining example than last night’s 1-0 victory over Utah. The Grizzlies had launched 30 or more shots-on-goal in each of their previous 11 games. Last night they only managed 24, and Steelheads goalie Richard Bachman stopped every one of them to record his second shutout of the season. The only score of the game came from John Swanson with 1:47 left in the second period. He was assisted by Mark McCutcheon and Mark Derlago, who recorded a point for the 13th straight game. The Steelies and Utah face off again tomorrow and Saturday.
After a week off, Troy Merritt and Graham DeLaet are back on the PGA Tour trail today as the AT&T National Pro-Am begins at Pebble Beach and vicinity. If the two former Boise State stars keep rolling as rookies, their hometowns will be part of a great story. Merritt was born in Osage, Iowa, and grew up in Fridley, Minnesota. DeLaet hails from Weyburn, Saskatchewan. Tough places to get professional golf careers started, you’d think. But look at them now. In January, their first month as regulars on the PGA Tour, Merritt had just under $160,000 in winnings, and DeLaet made over $94,000.
The Idaho Stampede finally clicked again last night, snapping their four-game losing streak with a 119-107 win at Reno. The Stampede put eight players in double figures, keyed by another big night from Donell Taylor. The former UAB star scored 26 points, while Andre Barrett had a strong double-double with 24 points and 15 rebounds. And former Boise State star Roberto Bergersen had one of his better games of the season, canning five three-pointers and netting 18 points. The Stamps thus take a positive into the All-Star break. They’ll be off for the next eight days, returning to Qwest Arena a week from tomorrow night against the Iowa Energy.
This Day In Sports…February 11, 1970, 40 years ago today:
Elgin Baylor, the former College of Idaho star, and Jerry West score 43 points each for the L.A. Lakers—but it takes a 41-16 fourth quarter blitz to beat the Golden State Warriors, 125-115, in the Cow Palace. On the same evening, at the bottom of California Highway 1, the Atlanta Hawks score an NBA-record 97 second half points in a 155-131 win over the San Diego Rockets. That’s better than a four-points-per-minute pace.
(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment Sunday nights at 10:30PM on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra and anchors five sports segments each weekday on 1350 KTIK/The Ticket. He also handles color commentary on KTVB’s telecasts of Boise State football.)