Utah State will begin defense of its Mountain West Conference men’s basketball title Wednesday night in San Jose, California.
The 25th ranked Aggies open league play at San Jose State in the Provident Credit Union Event Center. Tipoff is set for 9:15 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN2.
“We are starting league play a lot earlier than normal and first up is San Jose State,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “... We need to take care of business on the road and we look forward to that opportunity.”
Teams take a week off from non-conference play to begin MW action. Then it’s back to non-league games until the first the new year. With the conference tournament a week earlier this year because of events in Las Vegas, it forced the MW to have some league games in December.
“It’s not ideal, but it’s how it needed to be because of the situation,” Smith said. “It will go back to the normal time next season. ... It is a different type of feel to start league play right now. It is what it is and you’ve got to roll with it.”
The Aggies (7-1) left for the Bay Area Tuesday afternoon via a charter flight out of the Cache-Logan Airport. They face Fresno State at home on Saturday afternoon.
USU suffered its first loss of the season at Saint Mary’s on Friday, a 81-73. The coach has liked how the team has responded in practice.
“It was a great learning experience (at Saint Mary’s),” Smith said. “We made some really costly mistakes, especially the last five minutes. ... The last two days we’ve had two of our better practices of the year. It feels like we got better.”
The Aggies were outrebounded and shot less free throws than the Gaels. That does not happen very often in the same game. That has been a focus in practice since the loss.
After winning three of their first five games, the Spartans (3-5) have dropped three straight by an averaged of more than 26 points. San Jose State has given up an average of 89 points in three setback. The latest loss game at UCLA on Sunday, 93-64.
“They (Spartans) play a lot of guys with nine guys that average double digit minutes and a 10th guy averages 8.6 minutes and has started in six games,” Smith said. “They play a lot of different guys. We will need to be on point defensively with their personnel.”
Ten Spartans have played in all eight games and seven different athletes have started. There are nine SJSU players averaging 4.0 points or more a game. In fact in the loss to the Bruins on Sunday, three players off the bench reached double figures in scoring as SJSU got 37 points from those that didn’t start.
The Spartans do have the ninth tallest team in the country. They are not only tall but beefy as 6-foot-11 center Samuel Japhet-Mathias tips the scales at 280 pounds.
“They are a big team,” Smith said of the Spartans. “We will need to do a good job on the boards. They do a very good job on the boards and get almost 34 percent of their boards on offense, on missed shots, which is a good number.”
Only two Spartans average double figures in scoring in guard Seneca Knight (11.8 points per game) and guard Richard Washington (10.1). Forward Christian Anigwe leads SJSU in rebounding with 6.6 an outing.
“I think they (Spartans) are deeper and more talented without a question (this year) and can hurt you in more ways,” Smith said. “... They have guys that can shoot it, but have just been a little inconsistent. ... He (Knight) can score in bunches.”
Smith also singled out guards Brae Ivey, Zach Chappell and Omari Moore. Chappell came off the bench to lead the Spartans against UCLA with 12 points, while Moore also played off the bench and scored 11 points.
The Aggies are the second tallest team in Division I, but two of their three 7-footers have been out of action. Kuba Karwowski will for sure miss Wednesday’s game as he recently had his appendix out. The return of all-conference center Neemias Queta is still not know, so that leaves freshman Trevin Dorius as the lone 7-footer that for sure will suit up. And he may not start.
Against Saint Mary’s, the Aggies went small with Alphonso Anderson getting the nod for his first start. The 6-6 forward has been sick and continues to battle that. Who starts is up in the air until game time.
“I’m not hiding anything; I honestly don’t know yet,” Smith said. “I’m thinking a lot about the rotations.”
Five Aggies continue to average double figures in scoring, led by Sam Merrill with 17.4 ppg. He is joined by Justin Bean (14.8), Anderson (13.3), Diogo Brito (11.1) and Brock Miller (10.3). Bean is leading in the rebounding department with 11.4 a contest, while Abel Porter is the top assist man at 4.4 a game, followed closely by Merrill with 4.3.
Playing at SJSU brings its own challenges. Usually there is not much of a crowd and the small gym has some weird dimensions that most arenas don’t have. USU has managed to have success there, but did lose there in 2018, 64-62. Before that setback, the Aggies had won 21 in a row against the Spartans.
“Our guys know what is at stake,” Smith said. “It (arena) really has different dimensions. It’s really deep on the ends with hardly any seating. It’s a different vibe, but we have some experienced players that know what to expect.”
USU won both meetings with SJSU last year, 81-63 on the road an 103-73 at home, but the road victory was not as easy as the final score may indicate.
“We got off to a real slow start last year at their place,” Smith said. “It’s a difficult place for different reasons. We need to have great energy, which I anticipate we will.”