MORAGA, Calif. — Before the 2019-20 men’s college basketball season even tipped off, Friday’s date was circled by many.
That’s because it was an early-season matchup of two programs that were ranked in the Preseason Top 25 that aren’t from power conferences. A little has changed in the first month of the season as only one team is still in the rankings, but both are gunning to pick up a valuable win that will help come NCAA Tournament selection time.
No. 15 Utah State takes on Saint Mary’s late Friday night at McKeon Pavilion. Tipoff is scheduled for 9:30. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.
“They are a very historic team, have an excellent program and are very well coached and disciplined,” USU head coach Craig Smith said about the Gaels. “... It will be a heck of a test to go on the road at their place. They are playing good basketball and have really talented players.”
The Aggies (7-0) left snowy Cache Valley on Thanksgiving for a flight to the Bay Area. When the team arrived in Oakland, California, it was in the high 40’s. It wasn’t quite what the Aggies had experienced last weekend in Jamaica, but they are excited to play one of the top mid-major programs around.
“There’s no doubt the way things went last year that they (Gaels) will be hungry and motivated,” Smith said. “But so are we. You don’t have opportunities rolling in at you every week to play teams that are potentially Quad 1 games. They have a hard time scheduling and we have a hard time scheduling, so it makes sense.”
Last year in Las Vegas at an early-season tournament, USU handled Saint Mary’s, 80-63. The Gaels will visit Logan next season as part of the deal that has the Aggies in Moraga for Friday’s game.
Saint Mary’s (6-1) is tied for 27th in the rankings when looking at others receiving votes. The Gaels’ lone setback came more than two weeks ago at home to Winthrop, 61-59. Since that setback, they have won five in a row and been shooting at an incredible clip.
During the five-game winning streak, Saint Mary’s has made 55 percent of its shots from the field and 49 percent from 3-point range. The Gaels have also averaged 16.6 assists, only 8.6 turnovers, made 11 3-pointers a game and outscored opponents by 24.2 points.
“They (Gaels) don’t make a whole lot of mistakes,” Smith said. “They don’t turn it over, they rebound well and they play unselfishly. They are just sound.”
Granted, some of the statistics for Saint Mary’s are skewed a bit after its latest win against Division II Sonoma State, 107-56. However, the Gaels still had to make shots and did by a variety of players. Saint Mary’s made a school record 71.2 percent of its shots from the field, including 17 of 28 from beyond the arc.
How hot were the Gaels against the Seawolves last Sunday? From the 19 minute mark of the second half until the five minutes to play, Saint Mary’s did not miss a shot. The Gaels made 20 consecutive shots from the field and ended up shooting 82 percent from the field in the second half. A 10-point lead doubled and tripled quickly. The Aggies are well aware of the task of not letting the Gaels to get on a roll.
“(Jordan) Ford is as good of a player as we are going to see all year,” Smith said of Saint Mary’s guard. “He can really do it all. … All of his numbers are outstanding.”
Ford leads a trio of Gaels that are averaging double figures in scoring with 20.7 points per game. The 6-foot-1 senior has netted at least 20 points in six of his team’s seven games.
Malik Fitts is a 6-8 forward who also has Smith’s attention. Fitts, who averages 13.1 points and a team-best 6.1 rebounds an outing, tips the scales at 230 pounds.
“Malik Fitts just makes a lot of plays,” Smith said. “He is strong and rugged and a really good athlete. Then there is Tanner Krebs, who is playing very good basketball and is an excellent shooter who can really space the floor.”
Krebs is averaging 12.4 ppg, while grabbing 4.4 rebounds. He is a 6-6 guard.
Saint Mary’s enters the game second in the nation in 3-point shooting percentage at 45.9 percent. The Gaels also have some height in 7-3 senior Aaron Menzies and 7-1 junior Jock Perry. However, both of those bigs have not played a lot of minutes. Matthias Tass, who is 6-10, has been the main big man.
“They have a lot of skill and are a good passing team,” Smith said of the Gaels. “We are excited for the challenge, coming off a great tournament in Jamaica. I thought we got better and learned a lot about ourselves.”
Last year against Saint Mary’s is when Aggie center Neemias Queta had his breakthrough performance . The 7-footer scored 24 points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked five shots. He has yet to play a game for USU this season as he continues to come back from a knee injury that happened in the summer.
“His progress is good,” said Smith when asked for an update on Queta. “I wish I could tell you he was going to be back in three days or 10 days or three weeks or six weeks. I don’t know. He is definitely making progress and is definitely getting stronger. He just looks better and better. Hopefully we can get him cleared soon.”
Queta is with the team on this trip, but he was also in Jamaica. Whether his first action of 2019-20 is against Saint Mary’s is unknown.
Aggie guards Sam Merrill and Abel Porter both suffered ankle injuries on Sunday against North Texas. Each left the game and returned. The Aggie head coach said Porter is “good” and Merrill was a, “we will see, but Sam is a gamer.”
Merrill leads the Aggies in scoring and assists with 16.6 points and 4.7 assists a game. Joining Merrill in double-figure scoring is Alphonso Anderson (14.7), Justin Bean (13.4), Diogo Brito (11.7) and Brock Miller (10.6). Bean continues to average a double-double as he pulls down 11.4 boards a game.
While playing at Saint Mary’s is a tough task, the Aggies have had success in the small gym and were nationally ranked at the time. The Gaels have only hosted one game against a nationally ranked non-conference opponent in the past decade. USU came to town and won in 2011, 75-65.