In order to keep pace with first-place Boise State in the Mountain West Conference men’s basketball standings, Utah State will need to keep winning.
After being victorious in their first six league games by an average of 33.3 points a game, the Aggies will face much stiffer competition Thursday night in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. USU welcomes preseason favorite and defending regular season champion San Diego State to town for the first of a two-game series. Tipoff Thursday evening is at 7 o’clock and will be televised by CBS Sports Network.
“We’ve had some great battles with them (Aztecs),” Aggie head coach Craig Smith said Wednesday evening after a practice. “We have so much respect for them. ... We had some good games with them last year. We have played well against them lost.”
This series pits the top two defensive teams in the MW as the Aggies (9-3, 6-0 M) allow 60.5 points per game, while the Aztecs (9-2, 3-1) are second in the MW, allowing 60.7 points per game. The teams are also first and second in defensive field goal percentage, as USU foes are shooting a league-worst 38.0 percent from the floor, while the Aztecs are second, as SDSU opponents are shooting 39.1 percent.
“Their (Aztecs) numbers speak for themselves,” Smith said. “They are a fantastic team. They are a great program that is very, very well coached. They have great chemistry and play together. ... They take great pride on the defensive end. They make it very difficult to score.”
Only two teams have reached 70 points against SDSU this year and both won. BYU handed the Aztecs their first loss, 72-62, and then Colorado State rallied from 26 points down to win 70-67.
“They don’t have a lot of holes,” Smith said of the Aztecs. “... There really are no secrets when you play these guys. They know us and we know them. It’s going to be a rock fight. When you have opportunities, you need to make them pay.”
The Aggies are leading the conference on both ends of the court. They rank first in league games in scoring defense (51.0), scoring margin (33.3), field goal percentage defense (.323), 3-point field goal percentage defense (.248), rebounds per game (46.17), rebounding margin (17.0), blocks (6.67), assists (20.17), steals (7.33) and turnover margin (3.83). USU is a close second in scoring offense (84.33), field goal percentage (.501) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.49).
USU’s bench has been a large part of the success in league play, averaging 31.7 points per game and shooting 43.9 percent from the floor and 35.5 percent from behind the arc. USU reserves averaged just 14.3 points per game and shot 36.1 percent from the floor and 27.6 percent from three during the Aggies’ six non-conference games.
The current eight-game winning streak is the second longest for the Aggies during Craig Smith’s tenure. USU posted a 10-game winning streak during the 2018-19 season.
During its recent eight-game winning streak, USU is averaging 82.4 points per game, shooting 49.3 percent from the floor and 35.9 percent from behind the 3-point line. The Aggies’ opponents are averaging 52.5 points per game and shooting 33.9 percent from the floor and 27.0 percent from behind the arc.
USU is also dominating the glass, pulling down 44.6 rebounds per game to the oppositions’ 28.6 rebounds per game. The Aggies have also averaged 19.0 assists per game.
“Rebounding will be at a premium and post defense,” Smith said. “Finding easy baskets will be a big key to this game because both teams are very, very good defensively.”
The Aggies expect to be in much closer game Thursday than they have been so far in conference play.
“I’m not going to lie, I kind of like those big leads,” Smith said with a laugh. “I’m excited how we have been playing. Our guys are excited to play a quality team like San Diego State and find out what they are made of. ... We have had so many good games against these guys over the last two years. We are excited to play a team of this caliber.”
The Aztecs have wins over then nationally ranked UCLA and Arizona State and also blew out a good Saint Mary’s team before starting conference play. San Diego State split with Colorado State at home, then swept Nevada, but needed a last-second game-winning shot by Trey Pulliam to win the second contest.
The Aztecs have benefited heavily from their seniors and junior Nathan Mensah. Matt Mitchell, Mensah, Jordan Schakel, Terrell Gomez and Pulliam have combined to account for 75 percent of the team’s scoring this season and 84 percent of all Aztecs points over the last five games. Mitchell, Schakel, Mensah and Pulliam have started all 11 games.
“Matt Mitchell is playing at a high level and is a match-up issue because he is so versatile and strong,” Smith said. “He presents a lot of issues. ... Jordan Schakel is shooting it really well and playing with a lot of confidence. Nathan Mensah is an excellent player that is a rim protector.”
Mitchell, an all-league forward, leads SDSU with 15.8 points a game. Schakel and Mensah join him in double-digit scoring with 13.3 and 10.6 points an outing, respectively. Gomez, a graduate transfer from Cal State Northridge, is coming off the bench to add 8.4 points and 2.5 assists a game. Mensah leads them in rebounding with 7.4 an outing.
The Aggies counter with four players averaging double figures and a fifth that has in conference games. Marco Anthony leads USU with 12.9 ppg., followed by Neemias Queta (12.3), Justin Bean (11.6) and Rollie Worster (10.2). Brock Miller, who is averaging 8.0 ppg. for the season, is scoring 10.3 ppg. in MW action.
Queta leads the Aggies this season in rebounds (8.8), assists (3.2), steals (1.3) and blocks (2.8) and is the only player in the country that has totaled more than 30 blocks and 30 assists. The Aggie big man is one of only three players in the nation over the last 25 years to average more than 11 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.5 blocks per game, joining Tim Duncan (Wake Forest, 1996-97) and Dominic McGuire (Fresno State, 2006-07). Queta is tied for seventh in the nation with 34 total blocks, which is as much or more than 207 other teams in the nation.