When the Mountain West released the 2019-20 men’s basketball schedule, many Aggie fans circled Jan. 11.
That’s because Nevada would be coming to town. The last visit to the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum by the Wolf Pack was more than memorable and actually ended in an ugly way.
Utah State beat then-No. 12 Nevada, 81-76, early last March to take the inside track to the top seed for the upcoming Mountain West Tournament. Words were exchanged and eventually some damage was done in a hallway between the locker rooms, including the destruction of a fire extinguisher.
But that was last year and a lot has changed since then. The Aggies (13-5, 2-3 MW) host the Wolf Pack (10-6, 3-1) Saturday night in the Spectrum. Tipoff is scheduled for 6 o’clock.
“It’s definitely not the same as last year,” said USU head coach Craig Smith after practice on Friday. “That game was essentially a game for first. We are not in the possession we ideally would like to be in, but they (Wolf Pack) still control their destiny.”
The Aggies went into last year’s meeting with the Wolf Pack at the Spectrum having won five in a row and 12 of 13. Nevada came to town with high expectations to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
Fast forward 10 months and the Aggies are mired in a three-game losing streak — the longest since Smith took over. The Wolf Pack is almost a completely different team with a new coaching staff and many new faces on the court.
Still, there is a long history between the two. The Aggies and Wolf Pack have been conference foes in three different leagues for 20 years now. During that time, they have won or shared 17 regular season conference titles — USU nine, Nevada 8. They have also combined to win seven conference tournament titles — USU five, Nevada two.
“There is a long history with Nevada, so there is a natural rivalry thing,” Smith said. “That’s excitement for the fans and everybody, and it sounds like we will have a great crowd. But we have enough on our plate to worry about the way we’ve been playing. We need to lock into what we need to do to find a way to win, play much better basketball and play more connected than we have been playing the last three games.”
During the three-game skid, the Aggies have struggled for long stretches to score. While there were some issues on the offensive end in December, USU found ways to win. That did not happen during a seven-day period that began on New Year’s Day.
The Aggies are coming off their worst setback of the season, a 79-60 loss at Air Force. Not all was bad during the three losses. The head coach felt like there was good effort in the 77-68 setback to then No. 13 San Diego State at the Spectrum, but the same can not be said for a 70-53 loss at UNLV an the defeat at Air Force.
“It’s been a rough seven day for sure,” Smith said. “Two of those games I felt like we weren’t ourselves, out of character, really showed a lack of discipline, a lack of toughness.
“... I’ve been excited about our mindset. We have showed up ready to work and are not sulking an pouting. We are trying to get back to our old ways.”
Nevada comes to Logan after suffering its first league loss of the season. The Wolf Pack lost at San Jose State on Wednesday, 70-68. Nevada did win at Air Force back in early December, 100-85.
“Nevada is a very good team that has been playing very good basketball,” Smith said. “Obviously, they had a tough one the other night. They have played great all year. They have excellent guard play. They are playing with a chip on their shoulder. They lost a lot of big-name players, so they have something to prove.”
Steve Alford is the new coach in Reno. Smith is familiar with the former New Mexico coach, who spent six seasons in Albuquerque and won four MW titles. Smith was an assistant coach at Colorado State at the time.
“I have so much respect for coach Alford, their staff and how they do things,” Smith said. “... They (Wolf Pack) are different than last year, but still want to get up and down the court. They have a lot of talent on that team and very high octane.”
The Wolf Pack have a trio of players averaging double figures in scoring. Jalen Harris leads the team with 17.4 points an outing, followed by Jazz Johnson (17.1) and Lindsey Drew (12.9). Harris is the top rebounder at 6.5 a game.
“Jazz Johnson was the Mountain West Sixth Man of the Year last year,” Smith said. “He can really get it going and had 34 the other night against Boise. Any of those guards can do that. Lindsey Drew has had a game over 30 points, and Jalen Harris has had a game over 30 as well. Those three put a lot of pressure on you; those three really know how to play.”
Nevada averages nearly 10 3-pointers a game and play tough defense. The Wolf Pack lead the MW in scoring at 83.3 points per game.
Sam Merrill, who is sporting a black eye from the Air Force game, leads four Aggies averaging double digits with 17.3 a game. Joining Merrill is Justin Bean (13.4), Alphonso Anderson (10.4) and Brock Miller (10.1). Neemias Queta (9.8) and Diogo Brito (8.8) are close. Bean is grabbing 10.7 rebounds a game.
The coach has talked about some players dealing with injuries. Merrill has been mentioned, as has Bean. The coach said he is not trying to make any excuses, but it’s part of the struggles. He may also play some younger players more if needed.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” Smith said. “The bottom line is guys have got to produce. I need to push the right buttons as a coach. ... We will make sure that happens.”
There is still plenty of games to play, so no one is hitting the panic button. However, getting back on track is a big priority.
“We need to play with poise and confidence and play our way,” Smith said. “... They have responded well in practice and taken accountability. We’ve had some pretty good meetings as a team and individually. Now we will see if we get some results.”