1999-2000 Utah State Basketball Season in Review

 

 
 

Aug. 17, 2000

1999-2000 Utah State Basketball Season in Review

Magical! Unbelievable! Extraordinary! Unexpected! Perfection! These are just a few words that come to mind when reflecting on what was the most successful basketball season in Utah State history. A season that saw an unknown group of young men gel into a single unit and achieve more goals than anyone thought possible. Among those goals achieved was a 13th trip to the NCAA Tournament, a perfect 19-0 record in conference play, which included three straight tournament victories, its second Big West Championship in three years, a school record 28 wins, and owner's of the nation's longest winning streak for three weeks which culminated at 19 victories in a row.

Picked to finish no higher than fourth in the Big West's Six-Team Eastern Division, no one could have imagined the metamorphosis that would take place with a team that finished 15-13 a year ago and lost in the opening round of its own conference tournament. The team returned just one starter and three lettermen from that squad to mesh with two redshirts, one returning missionary, and eight newcomers.

With such an inexperienced group, second-year head coach Stew Morrill knew that this team was going to take its lumps, but he also knew it was a talented group that had potential. And that potential came to the forefront earlier than anyone expected in the second game of the season against Florida in the opening round of the Maui Invitational. No one expected the Aggies of Utah State to play with the mighty Gators of the Southeastern Conference, ranked fifth in the country at the time, let alone take them to the final buzzer. Yet, that is exactly what USU did, losing to Florida 60-58 on a blocked shot at the end of regulation. Despite suffering the heart-wrenching loss, Utah State was determined to prove the critics wrong that it couldn't compete with a big-time program. Two days later USU persevered and defeated Southern California 52-50 in the final game of the Maui Invitational despite playing without its starting center, Dimitri Jorssen, who suffered an ankle sprain the previous day.

Basting in its 3-1 start to the season, Utah State returned to the mainland anxious to build on its early momentum. However, that momentum would be short lived as the Aggies lost three of its next six games to fall to 6-4 on the season heading into the Christmas break. After taking a four-day break for the Christmas holiday, the Aggies returned to campus to prepare for the Gossner Foods Classic. The break seemed to rejuvenate the youthful Ags as USU posted wins over Mercer and San Diego in its holiday tournament to remain perfect in the six-year history of the Classic.

The new millennium brought uncharted waters for the Utah State basketball team as the Aggies began the new century on a positive note with its most convincing win of the season, a resounding 83-66 victory over a very talented Fresno State team at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. Riding a three-game winning streak and coming off a dominating showing against the Bulldogs, USU hosted Brigham Young University, a measuring stick of sorts to see where the young Ags were and what they needed to do to challenge for a Big West Championship. In front of a soldout crowd, the Aggies never seemed to calm down against the Cougars and lost its first home game of the season 82-73.

With a 9-5 non-conference record heading into league play, a clean slate was all this group of cagers needed to prove it was better than its preseason record indicated. After relatively easy wins over Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine in its first two outings at the Spectrum, Utah State hit the road for four straight games. Having not swept a league road trip in almost two years, no one dared to think that this team could go into foreign waters and win two consecutive games on the road, let alone four. Yet, that is exactly what this group did. After blowing a 16-point lead at UC Santa Barbara and fighting back from six points down to win by four, the Aggies became more and more confident on the road and when they returned home in early February, they were 6-0 in the league with their next three games at home. Utah State, as expected, won those next three home games over North Texas, New Mexico State and Nevada to improve to 9-0 in the conference.

February 12, 2000 was the next measuring stick for Utah State as the Aggies traveled to Long Beach, Calif. to face the 49ers in a matchup of unbeatens as both teams were 9-0 in league play. The Aggies jumped out to a commanding 15-point lead midway through the first half and coasted to the win, laying claim as the best team in the conference. With a 10-0 league mark, and only three road games remaining Utah State looked as if it would win the Eastern Division of the conference barring a collapse at the end of the season.

Utah State began the home stretch of the season with a win at Nevada, tying the school record for most consecutive road wins in a year with six. After winning its next game at home over Pacific and improving to 12-0, its last obstacle in many eyes was next on the schedule, a road date at New Mexico State, the defending Big West Conference Champions and the preseason favorites for the 2000 season. As it did at Long Beach State, the Aggies built a commanding first-half lead and went into the locker room up 10 points at intermission. USU would withstand several second-half runs by NMSU and notch its 13 straight victory. Despite posting one of the biggest road wins in recent years, this group wouldn't allow a letdown at North Texas, as Utah State won its eighth straight road game to go undefeated on the road in league play, setting a new school record for most consecutive road wins.

Going home for its final two games of the regular season, only Idaho and Boise State stood in the way of a perfect conference season for USU. After coasting by Idaho, a capacity crowd witnessed history on March 4, 2000 as the Aggies came back from a four-point halftime deficit to defeat the Broncos and become the first team in school history to go undefeated in league play.

The next obstacle for the Aggies would be the Big West Conference Tournament and grabbing the league's automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. After a convincing 64-41 win over Pacific in the first round, USU would struggle against host Nevada in the semifinals before recording a 69-64 victory. The championship game would see Utah State face New Mexico State for the third time, as USU won by 15 in Logan and four in Las Cruces. The New Mags jumped on USU early, building an eight-point lead late in the first half. But as has been the case all season long, USU responded to adversity and rallied for a 71-66 win and a perfect 19-0 conference season. The victory gave USU its second league championship in the last three years.

Winners of 19 in a row and 22 of its last 23 games, USU would be rewarded for its outstanding run over the past two and half months by getting a 12th seed in the South Regional in Birmingham, Ala. against the defending national champions, the Connecticut Huskies. In that game, Utah State hung with the bigger and quicker team from the Big East Conference, but in the end the magical season that was had finally come to an end with a 75-67 loss in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

All the accolades accomplished on the hardwood by the 1999-2000 Utah State Basketball team did not go unnoticed as the Aggies had four players named to various conference teams, which is the most in school history. For the first time in its Big West history, USU had two first-team all-league players as senior guard Troy Rolle and junior forward Shawn Daniels were recognized. Also honored was junior point guard Bernard Rock and sophomore guard Tony Brown, as both players were named to the honorable mention team. Second-year head coach Stew Morrill was also recognized by his peers as he was unanimously named the Big West Coach of the Year. Daniels and Brown were also named players of the week at various points of the season, as Daniels won the award after leading USU to its first conference road sweep in almost two years, and Brown's recognition came after he lead the team to its two final road wins of the year at New Mexico State and at North Texas.

Daniels was without a doubt the most pleasant surprise for Utah State during its fairylike season. Daniels not only led the team in scoring (12.0) and rebounding (7.9), but he also tied the school record for blocked shots in a single-season with 58 despite standing only 6-6.

As for Coach Morrill, it was the second time in his 14 years as a head coach that he was awarded coach of the year honors, with the other coming at Montana. This season marked the fifth time that his team's have won 20 or more games and the 11th time that they have won at least 17 contests. In his two seasons at USU, he has posted a 43-19 (.694) record, including a 24-8 (.750) mark in league play.

In addition to setting new school records for wins, conference wins, and games played in a season, it was the first time in nine years that Utah State had more assists (487) than turnovers (453) in a season. USU also set school records for three-pointers made (194) and attempted (536), along with notching 235 steals. Its 487 assists tied for the fourth most in school history, and its 126 blocks were the third most in a single season. Also, the Aggies 46.6 field-goal percentage was the highest since 1990-91 (.473), and its .362 percentage from three-point range was the third highest ever. Utah State also had four players average in double-figures in scoring on the season, marking the second straight season that that has happened.

Yet, the one thing that brought this team together early in the season and became its trademark throughout the year was its stingy defense. Twelve times on the season, USU held its opponents to below 60 points. On the year, the Aggies allowed just 61.2 points per game, which was the fewest allowed since the 1957-58 campaign. Utah State also limited its opponents to a 40.3 field-goal percentage which was the lowest since the 1962-63 season. Utah State finished the year ranked 17th in the country in points allowed.

The Aggies finished with some interesting trends. They were: 26-0 when leading at halftime, 26-1 when they shot better from the field than their opponents, 22-1 when they had more defensive rebounds than their opponents, 18-1 when they committed fewer fouls than their opponents, 21-1 when they recorded more assists than their opponents, 21-0 when they blocked more shots than their opponents, and 12-0 when they held their opponents to below 60 points.

 

 

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