SAN DIEGO — It’s a week of extremes for the Utah State men’s basketball team.
The Aggies began the last week of January playing at last-place Wyoming at high elevation in front of a mostly empty arena. Utah State will begin February with a game at first-place San Diego State at just above sea level in front of an large and hostile crowd.
“It is interesting, but I don’t think the weather is going to change anything, but one of the biggest things is we basically played in a dead arena on Tuesday night and it’s obviously going to be a much, much different atmosphere tomorrow night,” said Aggie guard Sam Merrill after the team arrived in sunny southern California Friday afternoon. “Fortunately, we have played there and we play in an atmosphere similar at our place in front of a great crowd all of the time. We know it will be a fun challenge.”
Utah State faces No. 4 San Diego State at Viejas Arena in a Mountain West matchup of the two preseason favorites to battle for the league title. Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. Saturday and will be broadcast on CBSSN.
The 12,414-seat arena is sold out. A Whiteout is on the schedule and at halftime Aztec All-American and now NBA MVP Kawhi Leonard will be honored and have his number retired.
“It’s going to be a packed house,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “It’s a great venue, one of the best in the country. It’s going to be a great test of us, but they guys are excited about this challenge.”
There will obviously be plenty of hoopla around this game. Staying focused and trying to communicate in a loud and hostile arena will be a challenge. Merrill said the Aggies have been working on communicating the past few practices.
“A lot of times we are not going to be able to hear what is going on,” Merrill said. “We have hand signals for most of our plays. I don’t anticipate that being an issue. We need to stay together and focus on what we need to do as a team.”
The Aztecs (22-0, 11-0 MW) will be playing their third game in seven days — in three different states. SDSU is the lone remaining undefeated team in Division I. The Aztecs enter the weekend at No. 1 in the NET ranking.
“Word has it they (Aztecs) are a pretty good basketball team,” Smith quipped. “They are. They are very, very good. They are so well-rounded in everything, well-coached and deep. They are athletic, defend hard, are incredibly unselfish and they just have everything. … They share the ball so well and it’s easy to see they are on a mission.”
Road wins at UNLV (71-67) on Sunday and New Mexico (85-57) on Wednesday kept the Aztecs perfect on the season. The 22 straight wins by SDSU is the longest streak in program history.
The Aggies (17-6, 6-4) come into this game with three straight wins and, minus three-and-a-half minutes at Boise State, they would be on a five-game winning streak. USU is healthier than it has been since before early December. The Aggies feel like they are starting to click.
“We are definitely playing much better than we were earlier in the month,” Merrill said. “Health is part of it, and we are healthier. We have made some adjustments and hopefully we can execute.”
USU had lost 11 straight meetings with SDSU before last season. The Aggies played much better than they have at Viejas Arena, losing 68-63, then went on to end the skid with wins over the Aztecs in Logan (70-54) and in the MW Tournament championship game in Las Vegas (64-57). The last time USU won at SDSU was in 1998 when the schools were not in the same conference. The Aggies actually won the first three meetings.
But since joining the MW, it had been all Aztecs. In fact, most games in southern California were some of the worst outings the Aggies have had in league play. They were much more competitive last year in Viejas Arena and look to build on that.
“I think this is going to be a great opportunity for our guys,” Smith said. “Our guys are relishing this opportunity. We did play them tough there last year.”
“The fact that we got the San Diego monkey off our back last year, beating them twice, has helped, and we really feel like we should have won down here last year,” Merrill said. “It is a tough place to play, but we are confident in the adjustments we have made from our previous meeting a few weeks ago.”
In the midst of what would end of being a three-game losing streak, the Aggies lost to the Aztecs at home on Jan. 4, 77-68. Merrill had 26 points, while Neemias Queta scored 15 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked three shots.
“We made some mistakes, and they (Aztecs) made us pay,” Smith said. “They are a team that makes teams pay for mistakes. It gets magnified because they are so good defensively. We are going to have to do a good job sharing the ball, moving the ball and not play one-on-one basketball.”
But having success Saturday night will be a tall order. The Aztecs are undefeated and at the top of the rankings for a reason. They are third nationally in scoring margin (+17.8), third in 3-point field goal defense (27.1), fourth in scoring defense (57.2), fourth in 3-point field goal differential (+10.6), fourth in field goal percentage differential (+10.1), sixth in field goal percentage defense (36.9), eighth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.41), 26th in 3-point field goal percentage (37.8) and 29th in field goal percentage (47.0).
“They shoot the three well, score it inside,” Smith said. “They have guys that can make pull-up J’s, and then just put lineups out there that have playmakers all over the floor. We saw that first hand at our place. They scored 15 points with five seconds or less on the shot clock in that game. … At the end of the day, they are just very difficult to score on, which is saying something because they like to get up and down the floor.”
SDSU has four players averaging 9.8 points or more and six players averaging 6.9 points or more. Guard Malachi Flynn leads the Aztecs with 16.5 points, 3.6 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.7 steals a game. Also scoring in double figures for SDSU is Yanni Wetzell (12.0) and Matt Mitchell (11.2), who had some dagger shots against the Aggies in the first meeting this season.
The Aggies counter with seven players scoring at least 6.4 points an outing. Merrill leads USU with 17.9 ppg, followed by Justin Bean (12.9) and Queta (11.1) in double figures. Bean is grabbing 10.3 rebounds an outing.