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Stew Morrill: USU won't be favorite in WAC

Utah State, which has won four straight conference titles in the WAC, will not be favored to continue its domination of the league if coach Stew Morrill is correct about what he sees as an Aggies team filled with question marks.

"For the first time in several years, we will not be the favorite in the WAC," Morrill said in a statement. "We hope the challenges of the preseason will help us improve enough to be a competitive WAC team. Nevada, New Mexico State and Hawaii appear to be very strong and we look forward to seeing how it all shakes out."

Perhaps that's an overstatement, and don't mistake Morrill's preseason prediction for a prediction on where Utah State will finish in the standings. The Aggies might be losing six seniors off their NCAA tournament team, including WAC player of the year Tai Wesley, but Morrill has managed to plug holes before after the departures of top players like Jaycee Carroll and Gary Wilkinson. Point guard Brockeith Pane is the only member of the all-conference first team to return.

Morrill is correct in noting that the rest of the league appears to be improving. Nevada had the league's freshman of the year in Deonte Burton. New Mexico State saw Troy Gillenwater turn pro, but will get top rebounder Wendell McKines back from surgery. Hawaii continues to recruit well under coach Gib Arnold, though two of his signees won't be joining the program due to academics.

Utah State still should be very much in the conversation to repeat as champion, and if it does get to the NCAA tournament again, Morrill has put together a schedule that might get the Aggies a better seed than the No. 12 seed they were assigned after a 30-win season. They host BYU in the season opener, play at Wichita State and play in the World Vision Challenge against Kent State before an important road game against Mississippi State on New Year's eve.

Then comes the WAC schedule, which Utah State can only hope won't be the RPI killer it was a year ago. A better conference would help the Aggies achieve their goal of a higher seed in the NCAA tournament, even if they think it makes it more difficult to get the nod as the favorite in the preseason.