Being greedy, the Aggies are not happy about a setback in their last outing.
However, with all that has gone on this season and not knowing what might happen over the next few months, being where they are at is an accomplishment. The Utah State men’s basketball is not going to rest on the successes so far s it looks to get back to winning ways Monday night in Las Vegas.
The Aggies return to Mountain West Conference action at UNLV. Tipoff at the Thomas & Mack Center is set for 7 p.m. and will be televised on CBS Sports Network.
“You always want to be undefeated, but at the end of the day you need to take a step back,” said USU head coach Craig Smith when asked about reaching the halfway mark of conference play. “To be 9-1, I feel we have played really good basketball for the most part. ... We tell our guys all the time how fortunate we are, knock on wood, to keep playing. We had our shut down in December, and it as not enjoyable.
“We are at the halfway point in league play. But who knows. Maybe we are over the halfway point. Nobody has a crystal ball. Look at our women’s team and the games they have missed. Every day is a gift for us.”
The Aggies (12-4, 9-1 MW) did miss two non-conference games, and Smith missed two weeks with the team because of COVID-19. That’s just a small taste of what the Rebels (5-6, 2-2) have gone through. UNLV was shut down for a stretch of 33 days, returning to action on Jan. 7. The Rebels had two games canceled and four postponed.
“UNLV is very, very talented,” Smith said. “It’s almost like they have had two different seasons. ... I do feel they are playing much better every night out.”
Despite dropping the first four games to start the season and then the first two after being shut down, the Rebels have won four in a row. They swept New Mexico and beat two NAIA schools as they played six games in 15 days. The last four contests have been in Las Vegas, a place USU has had its troubles in the past.
Smith was quick to point out what happened last year. The Aggies began a new year by getting run over by the Rebels, 70-53. USU returned the favor in Logan with a 69-54 victory as the two teams were part of a three-way tie for second place in the MW.
“We know how we played there last year,” Smith said. “We weren’t very good, and they really took it to us. We need to try and get back on track against a quality opponent.”
The Aggies head to Sin City after tasting defeat for the first time in more than a month-and-a-half. After winning 11 in a row, USU fell to Colorado State last Thursday at home, 84-76. It was by far the most points the Aggies have given up in a conference game and the second most for the entire season.
“We got comfortable, and we can’t do that,” Aggie forward Alphonso Anderson said. “Every night we’ve got to bring it. And it starts on defense. We need to go back to work and play tough defense.”
In conference games, USU is allowing just 55.8 points a game. UNLV is averaging 70.3 points an outing in league play an 74.5 for the season.
The Rebels feature one of the best scorers in the country in guard Bryce Hamilton. The junior is averaging 20.3 ppg., plus leads the team in assists with 3.6 dimes a game.
“Bryce Hamilton is a load,” Smith said. “With his size and strength, he can do so many things and score at every level.”
David Jenkins Jr., who followed his head coach from South Dakota State, scores 14.5 points a game for UNLV, while big man Cheikh Mbacke Diong is close to a double-double at 9.3 points and 8.5 rebounds an outing. Guard Caleb Grill, an Iowa State transfer, is netting 9.8 ppg.
“Their backcourt is very, very talented,” Smith said. “... The big kid in the middle (Mbacke Diong) has a high motor, is a rim protector and good rebounder.”
Smith feels like his team has responded well after the loss. The Aggies had two “good practices” before heading south.
The Aggies continue to be led by Neemias Queta, although he no longer leads the team in every category. The center does lead USU in scoring (12.6), rebounding (9.3), blocks (2.8) and steals (1.4). He is five assists behind Rollie Worster as Queta averages 3.0 a game. Worster is at 3.3.
Marco Anthony and Justin Bean are also averaging double figures for the Aggies at 10.9 and 10.2 ppg., respectively. Brock Miller and Worster are close to double digits at 9.8 and 9.5 ppg.