Utah

Looking for a First: Utah State is poised for a big opportunity in San Diego State

Utah State Guard Sean Bairstow (2) brings the ball to court during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Colorado State on Wednesday, January 12, 2022 in Fort Collins, Colo. Colorado State beat Utah State 77-72. (Jack Dempsey, Associated Press)

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LOGAN — Utah State and San Diego State have nurtured a degree of rivalry over the past few seasons.

When the two teams met in the 2018-20 Mountain West Tournament championship game, there were several big moments to look back on. Loyal Aztecs from Carlsbad to El Cajon still cringe at the thought of Sam Merrill’s jump shot. Nathan’s Mensah’s never-ending college career continues to baffle Aggies fans in Cache Valley.

The rivalry has waned recently in favor of the Aggies, who have been going 6-5 against Southern California opponents since the 2018-19 season. But when the two teams meet in San Diego, there has been no sunshine for the state of Utah. Since joining Mountain West in 2013, the Aggies have been 8-0 at the intimidating Viejas Arena, with just one loss less than double figures.

In the latest installment of the matchup, a Wednesday night (9:00 p.m. MST, CBS Sports Network) matchup, the 15-4 Aggies will make their ninth attempt against the Aztecs (15-4) for an away win in San Diego. A win would do wonders for Utah State’s season, giving him a share of first place in the Mountain West standings – and his first Quad 1 win of the season.

Standing between coach Ryan Odom’s side and a win, however, is an Aztec side that is in many ways the opposite of the Aggies.

Utah State is the most offensively dependent team in the conference, according to KenPom.com, and the Aztecs are the third most defensively dependent team. The Aggies rank 19th in adjusted offensive efficiency and San Diego State ranks 26th in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Aggies are an experienced rifle team who love to speed things up, and the Aztecs are a physical, defensive team who love to slow it down.

“They have larger bodies and are therefore athletic,” Odom said Tuesday morning. “They are very physical on the glass; they have some versatile lineups that they can put out there that can challenge you from a size and physicality perspective. … We’re expecting a full challenge and we’re excited for the opportunity.”

However, it’s not just defense that the Aggies have to worry about. San Diego State’s three starting supervisors — Matt Bradley, Seattle transfer Darrion Trammell and Lamont Butler — are all averaging double digits. The trio ranked 49th in adjusted offensive efficiency and put up big numbers when needed, including a combined performance of 88 points to beat Ohio State and 80 points to beat Wyoming.

“Trammell is a dynamic guard – he can really score,” said Odom. “Bradley is a great player, a really challenging player to guard. … He is certainly one of the best, if not the best (backcourts in the conference).”

The matchup is certainly a test for the Aggies, who are 7-point underdogs and have yet to show they can beat quality teams on the road. The Aggies were passed, surpassed and surpassed against another physical defense, Boise State, in an 82-59 loss on Jan. 7. On January 13 against Nevada, Utah State led in 30 minutes of action until the Wolfpack went on a 19-0 run too late to turn the game around.

What can the state of Utah do differently against the Aztecs? Maybe you’re emulating New Mexico, which won 76-67 at Viejas Arena two weeks ago.

“(New Mexico) controlled play on both sides of the ball for most of the game,” Odom said. “They were able to pull off some quality looks and some easy baskets and they were able to pull off enough stops to win the game.”

For the Aggies, controlling the game means keeping the pace up and securing defensive rebounds that help create offensive opportunities in transition.

Steven Ashworth leads the team with 15.7 points per game, and his 3-point shooting and passing skills are best on the open court. Utah State ranks first nationally in 3-point percentage (41.5%) and finds its rhythm best when forcing defensive stops and turnovers rather than consistently in a half-court attack.

Unlikely to overwhelm the Aztecs in color, the state of Utah needs to soften second-chance opportunities. Center Trevin Dorius needs to avoid nasty problems and stay in the game. Forwards Dan Akin and Taylor Funk need to be more assertive on the glass.

A nearly sold-out crowd will greet the Aggies on Wednesday night as they try to do something they’ve never done at Mountain West. This would arguably be the biggest win of Odom’s tenure, as the Aggies would be “at large” as the final month of the regular season sits atop the ranks and perhaps on the right side of the NCAA tournament as it nears.

But it will require a near-perfect effort.

“Our boys have to be in top form to have a chance of winning,” said Odom.

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