Riding a five-game winning streak, the Aggies enter a tough stretch of the schedule.
The Utah State men’s basketball team hosts UNLV on Saturday afternoon before heading out on the road for two games against teams in the upper half of the Mountain West standings. But the last thing the Aggies want to do is get caught up in looking ahead. The Rebels pose plenty of challenges.
USU (16-5, 6-2 MW) and UNLV (11-9, 5-3) tangle in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. Tipoff is set for 2:30 p.m.
“We are in the gauntlet,” Aggie head coach Craig Smith said after practice Friday. “UNLV is so rich in tradition. They are the fifth winningest program in the history of college basketball. We are home against UNLV and then our two road games next week against two very good opponents. These are three excellent teams and we are not even thinking about next Tuesday and Saturday, but it is going to be a great test to see where we are at and how we have grown and how we have developed. I love our mindset, I like how our guys have looked and they know what is at stake.”
At stake is getting a firmer hold on second place in the league and building some separation against what the head coach called “teams that are our peers, so to speak.” A loss would allow the Rebels to stay in the mix near the top.
“If we win, then we are 7-2 and they are 5-4,” Smith said. “If we lose, then we are both tied. ... You never know how this league is going to work out, but you just get the hunch that it is going to be really jumbled up in that middle area because it is so equal. This game is still one game and it all means the same, but this one seems like it means a little more because we only get to play them one time.”
That’s right. The Aggies and Rebels play just once this season. With 11 teams in the conference, each school plays two other schools just once and the rest twice. USU hosts UNLV and goes to Boise State in the opponents it plays once in 2018.
Whoever wins Saturday would obviously have the tie-breaker should they end the season with equal MW records. While Saturday’s game is big, the Aggie coaching staff is trying to also keep it in perspective.
“We know what is at stake and know what our goals and aspirations are, and in order to do that you have to earn that stuff,” Smith said. “This will be a really good test to see where we stand in the Mountain West at this time. We still have 10 games left, so you don’t want to make it a bigger deal than it is, but our guys have been playing all year with expectations and that is the beauty of it in the way we’ve approached it. All games have mattered for us.
“We are still in contention, although on the outside looking in, with some things in terms of postseason play. Every game truly matters. That is the beauty of this level. When you are at the level where I came from, you have no shot of getting an at-large (bid). It is just how it is. When you get to the Mountain West and can fortify your position because of the strength of your league — obviously you have to schedule right in the non-conference — then every game makes a difference.”
The Aggies are coming off a 103-73 home win against San Jose State last Wednesday. The USU students turned out in force for the Spectrum Magic Night promotion. The Aggies would like to see a big crowd on Saturday as well.
“This conference is going to be a tight race,” USU senior forward Quinn Taylor said. “We know it is going to come down to every last game. ... We want to have a good atmosphere here every night, and we are going to come out and play like that. Hopefully, we played well enough (against San Jose State) that all those students want to come back Saturday afternoon. It would be much needed against a good UNLV team.”
The Rebels began league play by winning their first three games and held a 5-1 record at one point. They come to Logan on a two-game skid after losses at San Diego State (94-77) and at home to No. 8 Nevada (87-70). The latest setback came on Tuesday.
“They are in the midst of a tough stretch in their schedule,” Smith said of the Rebels. “They had the extra day off. They played on Tuesday, and we played on Wednesday. We just need to take care of business at home and hopefully we have a great crowd, just like the other night.”
UNLV is similar to USU in that the roster is full of young players. The Rebels are also balanced in scoring. In league games, Joel Ntambwe and Kris Clyburn are leading the way with 15.8 and 15.3 points a game. Amauri Hardy and Nick Blair add 13.0 and 10.2 ppg, respectively, in MW games.
For the season, Clyburn leads UNLV with 13.6 ppg. The senior guard had 23 points and eight rebounds in the loss Tuesday to the Wolf Pack.
“They are just so balanced,” Smith said of the Rebels. “... They can play a lot of different ways and we need to be ready to play and understand their personnel. They are playing 10 guys pretty routinely, so we need to really be sharp with the game plan with how they are playing at that moment with their lineup.”
Four different Rebels have made at least 29 3-point shots this season. Ntambwe and Cheikh Mbacke Diong each average 6.3 rebounds a game to lead the team. Diong has blocked 26 shots to lead UNLV. Senior forward Shakur Juiston was leading the team with 8.8 boards, while adding 10.8 points a game before getting injured.
Smith is concerned with the Rebels ability to rebound, especially on the offensive end.
“They (Rebels) are No. 2 in the country in offensive rebounding,” Smith said. “Sometimes you say they are a good offensive rebounding team because they miss a lot, but that is not the case with these guys. They get 40 percent of their missed shots. That is borderline unheard of. ... They are so athletic and big. The good part is, we’ve been a good rebounding team this year.”
The Aggies lead the MW in league games with a rebound margin of +7.1. Neemias Queta is averaging 9.6 rebounds a game in league play. Taylor grabs 6.0, while the rest of the USU roster does its part.
Sam Merrill is second in the league in scoring with 19.4 points a game. Queta is the lone Aggie to join Merrill in double-digit scoring with 10.9. Brock Miller is averaging 12.5 ppg in MW games.
“We just need to keep playing like we have on the offensive end and take care of business at home,” Smith said. “When you look at the scores in the league, road wins are hard to come by in this conference.”