Utah State basketball stuck in middle at WAC halfway point
Halfway through the Western Athletic Conference season, the league is muddled in the middle.
At the top is Louisiana Tech, which despite Utah State's best efforts prevailed on Saturday. The Bulldogs have beaten every team on the first run-through of conference play. At the bottom, UT San Antonio and Seattle are languishing with a win apiece.
And then there's the Aggies, who have slowly sunk to that in-between plateau.
It's hard to doubt that retaining Preston Medlin and Kyisean Reed would at least have put Utah State closer to the upper crust, but there's hardly any purpose to that speculation. On a four-game losing streak, the Aggies have to find a way to win on their upcoming three game road trip.
Or else they risk sliding down into the depths of the WAC.
Consider this a midseason report card, with more observations than grades.
• Utah State is having a time scoring in the post. In the Aggies' first 14 games, they outscored every opponent in the paint except UC Davis. Since San Jose State, the Aggies haven't done this once. Part of it is because Reed is out for the year, but it's also about how rare some of those looks have been. The only guys getting consistent shots in the paint have been Utah State's big men, and they've been swarmed and contested. Jordan Stone is the only post player shooting above 43 percent in the last five games, and he's only 3-for-5. The coaching staff has fewer athletes to work with, but the challenge ahead will be to find more ways to penetrate, to get easy layups behind the defense and find those high-percentage shots. Utah State still has a season shooting average of 46.9 percent, good for 30th in the NCAA, but that number is sliding.
• The perimeter has been boom or bust for Utah State. Boom because they lead the WAC with 37.7 percent shooting, one of the figures that's held up well even after Medlin's injury. Spencer Butterfield and Marvin Jean are the go-to guys from beyond the arc, while TeNale Roland, Marcel Davis and Ben Clifford can also hit some from deep. But it's been a bust because the Aggies can't defend the 3-point line. Opponents have shot 34.3 percent, which is ninth in the confernece. Denver knocked them out from long range, and even Louisiana Tech, which has shot poorly on 3-point range this year, had a nice first half thanks to Brandon Gibson. Some of the shots have been deep, deep attempts that have been hard to defend, but there's no question that WAC foes are getting good looks on the long ball.
• Turnovers have been rough for Utah State, especially because the Aggies are not a big threat to force turnovers themselves. The team's turnover margin, minus-2.7, ranked No. 300 in the NCAA and seventh in the WAC. Utah State's 5.1 steals per game are similarly low compared to the rest of the field. Part of that is because the Aggies' defense revolves more around forcing bad shots and getting rebounds than making pressure that forces turnovers. At this, they've done reasonably well - the program still has the 15th-best rebounding margin in the country. But taking care of the ball is all the bigger priority. One of the more concerning aspects of the ball security issue is how everyone contributes to it. Forced passes and bad choices have to be cut down.
• Jarred Shaw has to play consistently for Utah State to win, and Spencer Butterfield is clearly an emotional leader. But what about the hot-cold issue of other players? Marcel Davis has cooled on his scoring contributions since getting double digits in back-to-back games against Seattle and Idaho. Marvin Jean came on strong against Denver and UT Arlington before being held silent against the Bulldogs - same with Ben Clifford. As much as the Aggies need their leaders to be consistent, the role players and bench guys need to have more reliable outings as well. Obviously each night has its fluxuations, but Utah State has less of a luxury for those ups and downs.
The next three games are winnable for Utah State - Idaho might be the toughest, as Don Verlin often gives the Aggies a strong fight, and the Vandals are in that middle class as well. But Seattle has won one WAC game, and San Jose State is on a five-game losing streak. Winning two of three is a reasonable goal in the next short stretch for the Aggies.
Fatigue and narrow depth will surely hamper them for the rest of the year, but that's the new reality.
"We had chances, we have limitations," Stew Morrill said following an agonizing 3-point loss to Louisiana Tech, "but as I told them afterward, as long as you compete and try hard, we'll live with the results."
If the Aggies compete and try hard in this upcoming stretch, floating closer to that top part of the WAC is still a realistic hope.
Kyle Goonkgoon@sltrib.comTwitter: @kylegoon