While Aggie head men’s basketball coach Craig Smith may be worried a bit, signs are the Pioneers should be the concerned ones.
No. 17 Utah State returns to action Tuesday night in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum after a historic 55-point beat down of in-state rival Weber State on last Friday. Smith pointed out that coaches get nervous about the game before and after a rivalry. The Aggies (2-0) did struggle some in the opener, but were clicking on all cylinders against the Wildcats.
Smith pointed out two days of “unbelievable” practices led into the blowout. Utah State has not been celebrating the Friday victory, but instead went back to work.
“We had a good day off and two really good days of practice for Denver,” Aggie guard Abel Porter said Monday after practice. “That Weber (State) game was more like us than the Montana State game. We got our grove back and have had good practices.”
Denver (1-1) visits the Spectrum Tuesday night. Tipoff is set for 7 o’clock. The Pioneers are coming to Logan after a 74-62 home win against Utah Valley.
“We have had two very good practices going into Denver,” Smith said after practice on Monday. “Hopefully that is a good sign. I’ve loved our prep. It is going to have to be to guard these guys with the different things they do. They have a good mix. They shoot the three. They throw it inside and have a couple of younger big guys that can do some damage in there. Our post defense is going to have to be very good. We have to get back on defense. I thought their transition was very good, especially in the second half against Utah Valley. That’s when they started to separate.”
Denver made 7 of 12 3-point shots, hitting all seven in the second half against the Wolverines. Joseph Lanzi came off the bench and drilled all four of his attempts from beyond the arc and finished with a game-best 20 points. Fellow guard Jase Townsend netted 18 points for Denver.
“Townsend is a guy who can get it going,” Smith said. “Lanzi also got it going.”
“They have a couple of talented guards that we’ve got to be ready for,” Porter said. “They also have a big guy that can shoot it. ... They have a lot of talented players. Hopefully, we can do the job on them.”
Guard Ade Murkey, Townsend and Lanzi average double figures in scoring with 13.5, 12.5 and 11.5 points per game, respectively. Murkey is the lone senior on the team made up mostly sophomores and freshmen.
“They are very young,” Smith said of the Pioneers. “Eight of their top nine guys are freshmen or sophomores. They are a team that is very talented and are just putting it together. Ade Murkey has been a starter since his freshman year.”
Smith is familiar with Denver and its coaching staff having played against the Pioneers on a regular basis when he was at South Dakota State and a member of the Summit Conference.
The Aggies come into the contest remaining in the Top 25. In the latest poll on Tuesday, USU stayed at No. 17.
A trio of Aggies are averaging double figures in scoring. All-American guard Sam Merrill leads the way with 21.0 ppg, while also averaging 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists an outing. Justin Bean and Porter average 15.5 and 10.0 ppg, respectively. Bean is the top rebounder on the team with 9.5 a game, while Porter is averaging 7.0 assists each game.
Another trio of Aggies are close to double-digit scoring in Diogo Brito (9.5), Alphonso Anderson (8.5) and Brock Miller (8.5). Brito and Anderson have been coming off the bench.
After the 89-34 win over Weber State on Friday, what do the Aggies have for an encore?
“We need to remember how it felt and replicate the practices we had before that game,” Porter said. “We need to feel the same way going into each game. ... I don’t really know how you replicate that, what we did against Weber.”
The Aggies shot better than 55 percent from the field and held the Wildcats to 21.7 shooting from the field. Weber State also had 19 turnovers, which USU turned into 23 points. Ten Aggies scored and all 11 that played grabbed a rebound as USU outboarded the Wildcats, 44-27.
“It was kind of a wild game,” Smith said reflecting on the Weber State win. “I just had that vibe that we were going to play well that game. Over the course of 31 regular season games there will be a handful of games where nothing seems to go right. You just have to keep grinding those things out and find a way and not hang your head and pout and let bad offense equal bad defense, or whatever it might be. Then there is a handful of games where it will be hard for anyone to beat you. There are just some of those nights. We’ve had both of those nights now.”
The coach liked how some of his new players are fitting in. He praised Anderson, Kuba Karwowski and Trevin Dorius.
“We were just playing together and playing so connected,” Smith said. “People often think about playing connected on the offensive end, which is natural. But we were very connected defensively that night (against Weber State). We were just very connected all the way around. That’s what’s exciting to see.”
Communicating has definitely improved, while it is not always easy to do so with the home crowd turning up the volume. The Aggie veterans are aware of how loud it can get in the Spectrum, but the new players have had to learn quick as attendance is up to start the 2019-20 season.
“Our guys take a lot of pride in seeing that (full Spectrum),” Smith said. “We are all in this together. Hopefully our guys give them something to be excited about. Our guys didn’t give them a whole lot to cheer about on Tuesday night and they just kept on coming. The creativity is off of the charts, to say the least. It is a great environment.
“Brandon Ubel is our graduate assistant and he played four years at Nebraska. His first two years they were part of the Big 12 and his last two years they were part of the Big 10. When Brandon Ubel is saying it is the best atmosphere that he’s been a part of, that’s some heavy hitting company. ... That’s heavy praise for The HURD and heavy praise for our fans in Cache Valley.”
While the coach is happy with the fans turning out and how his team responded after the opener, he is stressing that they keep working and improving.
“We are coming off an emotional win,” Smith said. “The game before rivalry games and the game after rivalry games are always very concerning to coaches because they are such emotional games. Certainly Friday night was a very emotional game, but I’m proud of how we played that night and took care of business. We need to stay on point and keep the momentum moving in a positive direction.”