Since Craig Smith took over as head coach of the men’s basketball program at Utah State, it’s been rare for the Aggies to suffer back-to-back defeats.
Losing three in a row has only occurred once in the last three seasons. Utah State will be trying to avoid making it two times Friday night when Mountain West Conference foe Nevada visits the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. Tipoff for the first of two games against the Wolf Pack is scheduled for 7 p.m. and the game will be televised on FS1.
“It’s exciting to play, and it’s exciting to play at home,” said Smith Thursday during a zoom press conference. “Our last home game was Jan. 21. That’s almost five weeks. ... It’s going to be an exciting game. It seems like every time we play Nevada it is a very competitive game. We are excited to be at home.”
While the Aggies (14-7, 11-4 MW) thought their time between game was bad, the Wolf Pack (14-7, 9-5) have had it even worse. Nevada has not played since Feb. 7. When the Wolf Pack takes the court in the Spectrum Friday, it will have been nearly three weeks since their last outing.
“I think experienced teams will probably handle layoffs (between games) better,” Smith said. “... It is not easy to have long stretches without games. We are so excited to play at home and hopefully we can gain some continuity going into the conference tournament.”
USU last played a week ago at Boise State. The Aggies suffered two setbacks against the Broncos and dropped from first in the league to fourth.
“I said this last week, but this is big-boy basketball,” Smith said. “Players have got to make plays, and we have to be able to execute better. We had some break downs on defense. We have got back to the basics.”
Nevada was last in action against the same Broncos that swept USU. The Wolf Pack took both games against Boise State in Reno, 74-72 and 73-62. Nevada had won four in row and six of its last eight before being shutdown. Two-game series with San Jose State and Colorado State were postponed after the wins against the Broncos.
“Nevada is a very good team,” Smith said. “They are coming off what we just experienced. But they have everything. They are well coached. Steve Alford is a great coach and has had tremendous success where ever he has been.”
The five league losses for Nevada are by a combined 21 points. In two games at San Diego State, the Wolf Pack lost by five and two points.
“Those San Diego State games were coin-flip games, could have gone either way,” Smith said. “Every game they have played has come down to the final minutes. They are good.”
The Wolf Pack are lead by guard Grant Sherfield, who has made himself a strong candidate for MW Player of the Year. The sophomore is averaging 18.9 points, 3.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 1.6 steals a game. In the wins against Boise State, he averaged 24.5 points and 11.0 assists.
“Grant Sherfield is a heck of a player,” Smith said. “He really does a little bit of everything for their team. He scores it at every level and is an excellent passer. He makes great decisions and puts a lot of pressure on their opponent.”
Sherfield can score in a variety of ways as he has had 38 3-pointers — shooting .376 from long range — and has sank 105 of 119 free throws (.882).
While Sherfield is a handful to defend, he is joined by fellow guard Desmond Cambridge. The junior averages 15.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists an outing. Cambridge has made a team-best 54 3-pointers, shooting .348 from beyond the arc.
“Cambridge is a guy that can let if fly from anywhere at any time,” Smith said. “He can really get it going. Those two guys (Sherfield and Cambridge) account for almost 50 percent of their shots and their scoring.”
Sherfield, Cambridge and 7-foot forward Warren Washington have started all 21 games this year for Nevada. Washington scores 9.4 points and grabs 5.8 rebounds a game, while almost averaging a block each contest. Six other Nevada players have started at least three games. Zane Meeks, who has been coming off the bench of late, averages 9.0 points and a team-best 5.9 rebounds a game.
“They have good size up and down their line up and are a good defensive team,” Smith said. “You have to earn every basket.”
The Aggies continue to be led by center Neemias Queta, who averages 14.2 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.2 steals and 3.0 blocks per game. Joining the big man in double-digit scoring is Marco Anthony (11.1) and Justin Bean (10.1).
USU’s assist leader, Rollie Worster, is questionable for Friday. The freshman missed both games at Boise State with a lower-leg injury. He has been wearing a walking boot on his right foot. Brock Miller has also been dealing with back issues as well.
“Obviously, we are battling some things right now health wise,” Smith said. “We’ve just been a little unlucky.”
Fellow freshman Steven Ashworth started in Worster’s place last week and will again if Worster can’t go. Ashworth has played in all 21 games this season, averaging 6.7 points and 2.7 assists an outing. He is third on the team in assists.
On Thursday, Aggie center Neemias Queta was named one of 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Award, given annually to the best defensive player in Division I basketball.
“This is certainly well deserved,” Smith said. “Neemie is such a good player. We have seen the impact he has on a basketball game. ... He just loves to play. I can’t remember the last time he had a bad practice. He shows up every day ready to practice.”
The junior has been a force on the defensive end for USU this season, breaking the all-time school record in career blocks midway through the 2020-21 campaign. For his career, Queta has 184 blocks, including a MW-best 62 this season, to rank fourth in the nation. Queta also leads the MW and ranks fifth in the nation with 3.0 blocks per game.
When looking at advanced analytics, Queta leads the nation in defensive box plus/minus (6.7) and is second in the nation in overall defensive rating (80.4) and defensive win shares (2.0).
In addition to his prowess on the defensive end, Queta leads the Aggies with 14.2 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. In his last two outings, Queta logged 32 points and 10 rebounds and 30 points and 11 rebounds, becoming the first Aggie to record more than 30 points and 10 rebounds in back-to-back games since Marvin Roberts during the 1968-69 season. Only two players in the country this season have had back-to-back games with 30 or more points and 10 or more rebounds.
“It’s been exciting coaching him,” Smith said. “He certainly has taken his game to the next level.”
Queta is one of just three players outside the Power 5 to be named a semifinalist for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award. He is joined on the list by Western Kentucky junior center Charles Bassey, Virginia junior guard Kihei Clark, Kansas senior guard Marcus Garrett, Richmond senior guard Jacob Gilyard, Alabama senior wing Herb Jones, Baylor junior guard Davion Mitchell, USC freshman forward Evan Mobley, Tennessee wing Yves Pons and Baylor senior wing Mark Vital.
When comparing those on the list, Queta is one of only two players with more than 60 blocks and 20 steals. When looking at averages, Queta has the best combined average in blocks and steals, averaging 3.0 and 1.2 per game, respectively.
Queta leads the MW in field goal percentage (.584), 2-point field goals (122), defensive rebounds (138), total rebounds (194), blocks (62), blocks per game (3.0), player efficiency rating (30.7), effective field goal percentage (.584), defensive rebound percentage (26.6), total rebound percentage (18.8), block percentage (13.0), defensive rating (80.4), defensive win shares (2.0), win shares per 40 minutes (.263), defensive box plus/minus (6.7) and box plus/minus (12.0).