Utah State has dominated the Big West Conference tournament.
The Aggies haven't been as fortunate in the NCAA Tournament.
USU, which finished third in the Big West regular-season standings, defeated Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, 57-54, Saturday at Anaheim, Calif., in the conference-tournament final to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
The Aggies (24-8) are seeded 15th in the West Regional and will face second-seeded Kansas University (25-7) 8:40 p.m. Thursday at Oklahoma City.
"It feels good," said junior guard Mark Brown, whose 146 assists lead the team. "This is where we wanted to be the whole season. This is what we've worked for. No matter who they throw our way, we're going to go out there and give it our all and leave it all out there on the floor. It makes it even more worthwhile to play a well-known program. For me, it hasn't completely sunk in that we're going to the tournament."
Utah State, which played in the NIT last season, also made it to the Big Dance in 1998, 2000 and 2001. The Aggies have advanced by winning 11 of their last 12 conference-tournament games and 14 of 16.
They haven't fared as well on the national stage, posting a 6-16 mark in 14 NCAA Tournament appearances.
"We're just happy to be here, but that's not where it's going to stop," said Desmond Penigar, a senior forward who was the MVP of the Big West tournament. "We're trying to get victories. We're not just going there to make a showing. We're trying to get wins."
Though USU has played in two of the last three NCAA Tournaments, only three Aggies have tournament experience. Senior forward Toraino Johnson and junior forward Chad Evans were on the 12th-seeded USU team that beat fourth-seeded Ohio State in the first round of the 2001 NCAA Tournament before falling to UCLA in the second round.
Senior post player Mike Puzey played in the tournament for Utah in 2000. Puzey is one of 10 transfers on USU's 16-man roster. The other nine transfers are of the junior college variety.
"You never know if they're going to be overwhelmed or respond to the challenge until you visit with them a little more," coach Stew Morrill said. "I think it's always like, 'Wow.' When I was at Montana, we drew No. 1 UNLV, and it was like, 'Wow,' and then you try to settle in. What happens is that programs like that get so much exposure, and our kids can't get carried away by the exposure their kids and coaches get, or we have no chance. You have to focus on playing basketball and you have to see what you can do."
The Aggies said their lack of exposure could help them against perennial power Kansas.
"It's to our advantage right now," said Penigar, a two-time first-team all-Big West selection who leads the team in scoring at 15.4 points per game and is second in rebounding at 6.5. "We see them on television; they never see us play on television. We see them all the time and we know who they have. I'm sure the coaches are working on game film right now. We're up for the challenge and we know it's going to be a hard task, but we're up for it. We know they have Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison, two potential All-Americans, and we know that to beat them we need to stop those two guys. And we know that they have a great coach and a lot of history."
The Aggies expressed some disappointment with their seeding and playing far from home rather than the first-round site at Salt Lake City.
They had no complaints about drawing KU, though.
"We just need to play together like we've been doing," Penigar said. "There's a sense of urgency for the other seniors and me. Now we just need to go out there and play our butts off."¢
Notes: KU is 4-2 all-time against USU. The Jayhawks won the last meeting in 1968 at Logan, Utah. ... Utah State is 3-1 vs. NCAA Tournament teams with victories against Vermont, Utah and Weber State and a loss to Brigham Young. ... USU assistant Tim Duryea, a Medicine Lodge native, was head coach at Hutchinson Community College from 1999-2001. ... Johnson, who ranks second on the team in assists and third in rebounds, was an all-Jayhawk Conference selection at Garden City Community College.