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On a Mission
Kelli Anderson
February 16, 2009
Perennially overlooked Utah State is winning again with a cast of lightly recruited but devout late bloomers
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February 16, 2009

On A Mission

Perennially overlooked Utah State is winning again with a cast of lightly recruited but devout late bloomers

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THE UTAH STATE student rooting section, a mob of 4,000 blue-clad fans armed with sheets of opposition research for organized taunting, considers itself an integral part of its team's success. Yet at least one student was disappointed with the group's efforts at the D.G. Smith Spectrum in Logan last Saturday night during a 60--52 win over Louisiana Tech. "We weren't very loud tonight," sighed a white-wigged senior named Kyle Green. "You should have heard us against Nevada—players were covering their ears!"

That's the beauty of the 21st-ranked Aggies, who were 23--1 through Sunday, the best start the team has ever had: Even on nights when their signature strengths—best-in-the-nation shooting (50.6%), +6.8 rebounding margin or raucous rooting—fail them in some measure, they find a way to win. "We're not dominant," says coach Stew Morrill. "We have to execute, guard, rebound. We have to do things right to win."

Winning isn't new in Logan. In all but the first of Morrill's 11 seasons there, Utah State has won at least 23 games and been to either the NCAA tournament or the NIT. But only once since 1971 has it been nationally ranked. That was in 2003--04 when the Aggies finished No. 25 in the nation with a 25--3 record—and became the only ranked team ever to be left out of the NCAA tournament. Being overlooked is, alas, almost as big a part of the Aggies' basketball culture as winning.

Eternally third in the state's recruiting hierarchy behind Utah and BYU, Morrill's teams are typically a mix of lightly sought-after four-year players, junior college transfers and guys getting their grades up to speed. "We'll take a good player any way we can get him as long as he's a good kid," says Morrill.

What the Aggies lack in athleticism, size and speed, they make up for in skill, unselfishness and maturity—seven of the players on this year's team, including four of the five starters, have been on Mormon missions—and a willingness to buy into Morrill's complex system, which involves up to 40 set plays and counterplays at any one time. "Every day we're either putting in a new play or taking some play out," says sophomore forward Tai Wesley. "Coach gave us an article on toughness and said, 'I'm going to quiz you on this.' It's almost a class."

One player who particularly embraces the program's challenges is leading scorer Gary Wilkinson, a 6'9" 26-year-old from Salt Lake City who never played in high school. He tried out as a sophomore at Bingham High but was cut because he refused to play in the post. "It wasn't a lack of talent, it was a bad attitude," says Wilkinson. "I would have cut me too."

He dropped out in his senior year, but he later got his GED and joined the Mormon church. After two years of working at an electronics store and attending junior college part time, Wilkinson went on a two-year mission to Calgary, an experience "that taught me the value of making sacrifices for a goal," he says. On his return he shook off seven years of basketball rust and earned a scholarship to Salt Lake Community College. In two years there Wilkinson made juco All-America lists as both a player and a student.

At Utah State, Wilkinson has continued his transformation from a face-up player to a back-to-the-basket force who was averaging 17.3 points and 7.4 rebounds a game at week's end. But his academic metamorphosis has been more stunning. The kid who hated to read growing up is now a sociology major with a 3.85 GPA. In his spare time he enjoys poring over Supreme Court decisions, and he hopes to become a judge.

For the moment, however, Wilkinson and his teammates have more immediate aspirations, including a WAC title and their first NCAA berth since 2006. "You want to do something that people will remember," says Wilkinson. With a nation's-best 18 straight wins and counting, the Aggies already have.

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