It could become really crowded at the top of the Mountain West Conference men’s basketball standings.
The Aggies hope to do their part in making that happen, but know they face a stiff challenge in their next outing. Utah State will face preseason conference favorite San Diego State Wednesday night in Viejas Arena. Tipoff is scheduled for 9 p.m., and the game will be televised on CBSSN.
The Aztecs (15-4, 6-1 MW) sit atop the standings alone. However, four teams are only a game behind, including the Aggies (16-4, 5-2).
“San Diego State is playing good basketball right now,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said Tuesday before the team left for southern California. “... We expect a full challenge and are excited about the opportunity to play against San Diego State.”
The Aztecs swept a road trip last week, winning at Colorado State in overtime, 80-76, and then holding off a pesky Air Force squad, 70-60, after trailing midway through the first half.
The Aggies are coming off two wins as well, both played in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. USU beat UNLV (75-71) and San Jose State (75-74). After going 2-7 a year ago in games decided by five points or less, the Aggies are 4-2 this season in such games.
“You want to be able to perform when the pressure is at its highest,” Odom said. “Across the league, night in and night out, that’s what conference play has been about so far. You have to be able to execute and be a little bit lucky at times. … Our guys put the team in a position to win the other night even though we didn’t play our best overall game. We found a way to get it done. The key is, are you balanced enough on both sides of the ball to give yourself a chance to win.”
While the Aggies have won four of the last six meetings with the Aztecs, none of those were at Viejas Arena. In fact, USU has not left San Diego with a victory since 1998.
“San Diego State provides a tremendous challenge in regards to their physicality and gap defense with the ability to steal the ball,” Odom said. “Obviously, their crowd is a factor. They have a great home court advantage. Our guys will have to be on top of their game to have a chance to win.”
There is no doubt San Diego State is tough at home. The Aztecs lone conference loss, however, came in their own friendly confines. New Mexico won there on Jan. 14, 76-67. The Aztecs have won eight of their last nine games with the lone setback being to the Lobos.
What did New Mexico do to get a win?
“New Mexico kind of controlled the game on both sides of the ball for the majority of the game,” Odom said. “They got some quality looks and some easy baskets. They got enough stops to win the game. They have stellar guard play and they have an inside guy who can score around the rim and rebound the ball. They played really tough and found a way to win.”
Getting good guard play is vital against the Aztecs. They arguably have the best starting trio in the MW in seniors Matt Bradley and Darrion Trammell and junior Lamont Butler. Those three are the only SDSU athletes to average double figures. Bradley leads the team at 13.5 points a game, while Trammell and Butler average 11.6 and 10.1 ppg, respectively. Micah Parrish comes off the bench and averages 7.8 ppg.
“They (Aztec guards) could be the best group in the Mountain West, but we have good guards, New Mexico has good guards, Colorado State, UNLV,” Odom said. “There is great guard play in our league night in and night out. … Our guys are up for the challenge and excited about the opportunity to play against really good talent.”
While the Aztecs have those tough guards, they also have size with forwards Keshad Johnson and Nathan Mensah, who are both seniors. Mensah leads the team in rebounding (6.0) and blocked shots (1.6). Then there is TCU transfer Jaedon LeDee and senior Aguek Arop who come off the bench.
Bradley, Butler and Johnson have started all 19 games this season, while Trammell and Mensah have 18 starts. Of the top nine players that get minutes, seven are seniors.
“They have everybody back from a year ago and have added the point guard in Trammell, who is a dynamic guard who can really score,” Odom said of the Aztecs. “Bradley is a tremendous player, really challenging to guard. They are very physical on the glass.”
Trammell is 5-foot-10, but as Odom described is “shifty” and has a knack for getting to the foul line often.
The Aggies counter with some pretty good guards as well in Steven Ashworth, Max Shulga and Sean Bairstow. They are still without starting point guard Rylan Jones.
Ashworth leads the team with 15.7 points an outing and dishes out 4.5 assists a game. He is third in the nation in 3-point field goal percentage (.486) and among the leaders in the 3-pointers made per game (3.45), which does lead the MW. Shulga averages 12.0 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.4 assists a game while Bairstow is scoring 10.5 ppg.
USU is one of eight teams in the country with five players averaging double figures in scoring. Joining the guard trio are forwards Taylor Funk (14.2) and Dan Akin (11.8). Akin comes off the bench and also leads the team in rebounding with 7.4 a contest.
Last season the Aggies beat the Aztecs by 18 at home, then went on the road three weeks later and lost by 19.
“We took care of the ball, got quality looks and defended here (at home) and rebounded better,” Odom said. “They had zero offensive rebounds here. Down there, not the same. … We could have caught them on a off night here, who knows. I’m not going to take anything away from our guys, we played really well on that particular night.”
The Aggies will also be looking to play better on the road. After starting league play with a solid win at Air Force, USU had a dismal performance at Boise State and then let a close game at Nevada turn into a double-digit loss in the final minutes.
“You are going to shoot it well in some games and some games you are not,” Odom said. “Some of the stuff on the road has been self-inflicted. … The key for us is to get as many quality looks as possible.”