A month ago the Aggies and Rebels were enjoying being undefeated and among the last teams in the country with perfect records.
Within two days of each other, Utah State and UNLV both tasted defeat for the first time. Fast forward a month and the two Mountain West Conference foes face each other after disappointing league losses. Each school has now suffered multiple setbacks.
The Aggies (14-4, 3-2 MW) host the Rebels (12-5, 1-4) Tuesday night in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 o’clock.
“We are excited about the game tomorrow,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said Monday after practice. “We are playing a really tough team. UNLV had a great start to their season. ... We are excited to be back here in the Spectrum, but we know that guarantees us nothing. But we are excited to be playing back at home.”
USU was competitive at Nevada for more than 32 minutes last Friday night and actually held the lead for nearly 25 minutes of the contest before losing, 85-70. The Wolf Pack used a 19-0 run to bust the game open.
The next day UNLV had visiting Colorado State beat twice, but Rams guard Isaiah Stevens had other plans. The Rebels were up four with eight seconds left but ended up going to overtime when Stevens hit a wild 3-point shot at the of regulation. Once again UNLV had a four-point lead late in the extra period, but lost on a 3-pointer by Stevens, 82-81.
“That (shot by Stevens) was incredible,” Odom said. “I was watching it live. It was guarded well.”
So, both the Aggies and Rebels head into Tuesday’s game wanting to get back on track.
“Early in the conference, things are up in the right now. They (Rebels) have had some hard loses,” Odom said. “They probably had that Colorado State game and it slipped away. It was a tough loss. Obviously, we are coming off a tough loss too. It’s two teams that will be hungry to get a win.”
UNLV has struggled to finish in MW games, dropping three at home. The Rebels lone conference win, however, gets some attention. They handed then No. 21 New Mexico its lone home loss this season and just the second defeat on the year, 84-77. Most of their MW setbacks have been close, including a 76-67 loss against San Diego State in Las Vegas.
Graduate transfer EJ Harkless leads UNLV with 17.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.6 steals a game. The Aggies are familiar with Harkless, who played for Oklahoma for four years before moving to Sin City. Harkless is coming off a career-high 33 points in the loss last Saturday, while also grabbing nine rebounds, dishing out three assists and coming up with two steals
“He (Harkless) is a great player,” Odom. “We played him last year at Oklahoma. He is playing different than he was with that team. He had a different role. At UNLV, they count on him and he is a focus to score baskets. He does a really good job of reading the defense and getting other guys shots as well.”
The Rebels have two other players averaging double figures in the scoring department in guards Luis Rodriguez at 12.7 ppg. and Keshon Gilbert at 12.4. Rodriguez leads the team in rebounding with 5.9 boards an outing.
“Gilbert is a really good player and (Justin) Webster can knock down shots,” Odom said. “Rodriguez is a really good player they got from Ole Miss.”
UNLV averages more than 10 steals a game. That will certainly have the attention of the Aggies.
“They (Rebels) really feed off their defense,” Odom said. “Certainly in transition, they are dynamite. When they get steals and get out and go, they are very athletics with multiple finishers and drivers. They have big guys around the rim that can block shots and finish around the rim. There is no doubt they will try and get us into some difficult situations. We can not ignite their offense with our poor offense or lack of handling the ball.”
UNLV has forced opponents to average just over 20 turnovers a game. Ball security is a must against the Rebels.
“They are coming after you,” Odom said. “They are really good at putting pressure on you everywhere. The crowd the ball handler, they crowd the shooter. They are an aggressive, defensive team. ... Our defense is different. We don’t try and steal the ball a lot. We try and stay in front and limit shots at the rim and open threes. They (Rebels) definitely want to take your ball, but are also help oriented.
“They also take charges, the best I’ve seen this year. Our guys are going to have to be on balance and ready to stop when they drive into the lane.”
USU will once again be without starting point guard Rylan Jones. He has missed the last two games after getting run over at Boise State and hitting his head on the court. He had a concussion earlier this season against Utah Tech and missed three games.
Steven Ashworth, who leads the team in scoring mostly coming off the bench at 15.6 ppg., will make his ninth start. That leaves the question to who will provide a spark off the bench?
“Certainly Zee (Hamoda) and RJ (Eytle-Rock) will be factors,” Odom said. “... Not having Rylan is an impact. We could player bigger or smaller at times. But we certainly need Zee and RJ to play well.”
Ashworth is one of five Aggies averaging double figures in points. He is joined by Taylor Funk (14.2), Max Shulga (12.0), Dan Akin (11.9) and Sean Bairstow (10.9). Akin, who leads the team in rebounding with 7.1 a game, comes off the bench.
With all four road teams in the MW winning Saturday, that is a reminder that winning at home is not automatic.
“It’s a tough conference, and you’ve got to be ready to go,” Odom said.
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