Denver defense will again challenge Utah State frontcourt
For having one of the shortest starting lineups in the Western Athletic Conference, Denver sure gives big men a lot of trouble.
The Pioneers hassled Utah State into 15 turnovers in their last meeting at Magness Arena, forcing Jarred Shaw and Matt Lopez into eight of them combined. It was an ugly effort by the Aggies' frontcourt, certainly not one of their best games.
"We get a little sick watching film," Ben Clifford said. "Credit them, they're a good team. But we've gotten a lot better over the past couple weeks, and this is kind of a test to see where we're at."
Denver definitely posits a bunch of problems for Utah State, but the most pressing might be on defense. The Aggies scored only 57 points in their last outing, and Denver has one of the top-ranked defenses in the nation.
The USU big men have the most to prove. Denver stops opponents with size by swarming the post. In January, the Aggies couldn't get a two-point field goal for the first eighteen minutes of the game, instead relying on 3-pointers and free throws to get their points.
Using that approach, they fell behind quickly. Stew Morrill said Tuesday that the Aggies' post players would have to respond better to the pressure. It could well be the key to the game.
"What are you going to do when you can't just start spinning around?" Morrill said. "You can't just start dribbling. You have to chin the ball, see what's happening. You've got to keep your composure."
Morrill said he's liked the improvement in passing that Shaw has shown (although he did have five turnovers against Seattle) and that Ben Clifford might be the best post passer on the team. Jordan Stone doesn't cough up the ball much in general. Lopez, Morrill said, is still having issues, but the coach was hopeful the sophomore center can still improve.
The one loss Denver has suffered in the last 12 games came against New Mexico State, when the Pioneers gave up more turnovers (15) than the Aggies (13).
Utah State's big men can also help the team's chances by continuing to perform to its rebounding strengths. Denver is the worst offensive rebounding team in the league, having a meague 23.2 percent rebounding rate in conference play, according to KenPom.com. Utah State happens to be the best defensive rebounding team in the league during WAC play when measured by this percentage.
Morrill pointed out that Denver can usually compensate for the possession discrepancy by getting more turnovers than its opponent - indeed, the Pioneers force turnovers on a WAC-best 26.3 percent of all possessions in conference play.
"They have a tremendous knack for running over, taking the ball and apparently not fouling," Morrill said. "You watch film and think they might be fouls, but they're good at it. I've got great respect for what they've got going."
The Aggies will have to handle both ball security and the boards to win. That narrow room for error is the reason why Denver has been such a handful in the WAC.
Kyle Goonkgoon@sltrib.comTwitter: @kylegoon