With Christmas behind them, the Aggies now have their full attention on Air Force.
Utah State starts a two-game men’s basketball series against the Falcons in Colorado on Thursday afternoon at Clune Arena. Tipoff is set for 2 p.m. The Mountain West Conference game will be broadcast by CBS Sports Network.
“We are excited to be playing again and face an Air Force team with a lot of different players and a new head coach in (Joe) Scott, and he is a heck of a coach,” USU head coach Craig Smith said Wednesday before boarding a flight to Colorado Springs. “... It is easy to see that they (Falcons) are getting better every night out.”
This will be the first conference road game of the season for the Aggies (5-3, 2-0 MW). And USU is well aware of how tough it is to play Air Force (3-3, 1-1), especially at the academy. The Aggies have dropped two of their last three games at Clune Arena.
“We have not fared well at Air Force the last three years, losing two of the last three at their place,” Smith said. “They (Falcons) drubbed us pretty good last year. This will be our first road test (in conference) and second road trip of the year. Clune Arena is a difficult place to play, but it will be different with the fan situation this year.”
Last year USU built a 12-point lead in the early going at Air Force only to be run out of the arena the remainder of the game. The Falcons won 79-60 and dominated the boards, outrebounding the Aggies 50-29. The 19-point loss was the largest ever for USU in a game against Air Force. The rebound margin was also the worst for a Smith-coached USU team.
“They have kids that compete like crazy,” Smith said. “... They beat us in every way, shape and form that night. We got off to a good start, then started taking some horrendous shots. They (Falcons) started feeling it, the place was packed and started rocking and we just didn’t have a response to it. We did not play Aggie basketball.
“The moral of that story is you have to compete every night. You have to go and earn the victory every night. You have to be very disciplined against these guys. They are No. 2 in the country in lowest possession rate per game. ... We are going to have to perform at a high level to have success.”
The Falcons haven’t played since Dec. 20. However, they got a big win in their last outing. For the first time in program history, Air Force won at Nevada, 68-66. The Falcons dropped the first contest at Nevada, 74-57, but bounced back.
“They (Falcons) got a lot of back cuts for easy baskets (in the second game at Nevada),” Smith said. “... Those guys just competed really, really hard. It is never easy against them.”
In that win over the Wolf Pack, Air Force got a career-high 27 points from guard AJ Walker. The Falcons were down by 10 at one point in the first half and trailed by nine at halftime.
For the season, Walker, an all-league honoree last season, is averaging 12.8 points a game. Senior guard Chris Joyce leads the team with 14.5 points a game. Forward Keaton Van Soelen, who has had big games against the Aggies from beyond the arc, is averaging 9.0 ppg. Nikc Jackson leads the team in rebounding with 4.5 boards an outing.
“They run their offense very sharp,” Smith said. “Their Princeton offense is a little different than what they have run recently with previous coaching staffs. There are some tricky nuances that you have to be on point with. ... Their starting five are playing monster, monster minutes.”
The Aggies continue to have four players averaging double figures in scoring. Guard Marco Anthony leads the way with 13.4 ppg, followed by freshman guard Rollie Worster (11.9), forward Justin Bean (11.8) and center Neemias Queta (11.6). Brock Miller has had double-digit outings the last two games. Queta and Bean lead the team in rebounding with 8.9 and 8.8 boards a game, respectively. Worster has one more assist than Queta, 26 to 25, on the season.
“Our starting five has been really good since the Northern Iowa game,” Smith said. “... We have gotten a lot better in the last three weeks, which is exciting, but we need to keep climbing the ladder. We are playing way more connected on both sides of the ball.”
Having some “good” practices before heading to Colorado has the coach feeling good. But it is never easy on the road and especially against a team like Air Force.
“I think our player’s heads are in a really good spot,” Smith said. “We have come back in a very good spot. Now, having said that, Air Force is not the ideal team to be playing coming off a four-day break. It’s just a different animal.”
The USU bench has been playing better of late. The head coach wants to see “consistent production” off the bench. Alphonso Anderson, Sean Bairstow, Steven Ashworth and Trevin Dorious have each shined off the bench for the Aggies.
Liam McChesney is the lone USU player out right now, due to an injury. He may be gone for the season.