Utah State basketball: Can Aggies pull a hoop repeat in MW?
As Mountain West play starts, coach hopes for similar dominating “D.”
Published: December 31, 2013 05:50PM
Updated: January 1, 2014 04:41PM
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Utah State's Preston Medlin makes a pass while being guarded by Southern California's Roschon Prince during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Friday, Nov. 8, 2013, in Logan, Utah. (AP Photo/Herald Journal, John Zsiray)

Logan • Last Thursday, the Aggie faithful were glued to their TV screens, watching the Poinsettia Bowl. Basketball coach Stew Morrill was among them.

He was impressed by what he saw from the Utah State football team in a 21-14 win over No. 24 Northern Illinois.

“We need to play defense like our football team,” he said with a chuckle. “Holy socks. You gotta love it. That was an awesome deal, how they defended.”

Morrill was sincere: He wants his team to emulate that success.

Like the football team, the Morrill-coached Aggies basketball squad will begin Mountain West play with a trip to Air Force Academy. And as in football, Utah State is looking to make a statement in their first season in their new conference, starting Wednesday in Colorado Springs.

Tougher teams, tougher venues and a long slog of a conference season awaits in the new year.

“That’s what you want,” senior guard Spencer Butterfield said. “You want to play the best.”

Air Force, a 6-5 team that has lost to UC Davis, VMI and Jackson State, is not the best that the conference has to offer. The Falcons, who still run the Princeton offense, have had problems with turnovers and defense this season, and they have the lowest RPI of any Mountain West team.

But heavyweights lurk beyond. San Diego State is ranked No. 21 nationally this week, while New Mexico and Boise State have made cases that they are among the league’s best. Locales such as the Pit in Albuquerque, Viejas Arena in San Diego and the Thomas and Mack in Las Vegas will all be more hostile than anything USU saw in the Western Athletic Conference.

“Every single night, teams have a chance to beat each other,” senior guard Preston Medlin said. “It’s going to be a really fun experience. I’m excited to get started.”

When Utah State has stuck to its strengths this year, it has excelled. The Aggies are outrebounding opponents by 11.8 boards per game (No. 6 nationally) and have dished 17.8 assists per game ( No. 8). Beyond the arc, they dominate on both sides of the ball, shooting 41.8 percent while holding opponents to only 27.7 percent from 3-point range.

Medlin and Butterfield, both averaging about 14 points per game, have settled into established roles. Sophomore forward Kyle Davis is carving another one in the post.

But a question overshadows them: Will Jarred Shaw be back?

The senior center has been suspended since mid-December and faces a felony drug charge. He was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, production the Aggies have tried to make up with Davis and junior center Jordan Stone.

The team has said it is waiting for his legal issues to play out before it announces if he can rejoin. One thing is clear: The Aggies are a better team with him, and the 6-foot-10 star could ramp up the team’s chances of truly competing at the top of the conference.

“Jarred obviously commands some double-teams when he’s in there,” Davis said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get that respect from other teams this season. But I want to help take the pressure off Spencer and Preston.”

Regardless, Aggies see themselves as potentially an upper-crust squad in the conference. They’ll have to win to prove it, a journey that begins New Year’s Day.

And yes, Morrill is aware that the Aggie football team won in Colorado Springs for their Mountain West debut.

“Away we go,” Morrill said. “We’re looking forward to it. Our guys are looking forward to the Mountain West. Just stick our nose in and see if we can compete.”

kgoon@sltrib.com

Twitter: @kylegoon

Utah State at Air Force

P At Clune Arena, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Tipoff • 6 p.m.

TV • ROOT Sports

Radio • 1280 AM

Records • USU (10-2); AFA (6-5)

Series history • USU leads 10-2

Last meeting • Dec. 30, 2000 at USU; USU 59, AFA 50

About the Aggies • Utah State is top 10 nationally in both rebounding margin (plus-11.8, No. 6) and assists (17.8, No. 8) this season, and both marks lead the Mountain West. … Senior guard Preston Medlin is No. 14 nationally with a 3.54 assist-to-turnover ratio, while also shooting 46.9 percent from the 3-point line for the 19th best mark in the country. … Utah State’s last loss to Air Force came in 1971, when the Aggies fell 76-72 on the road against the Falcons.

About the Falcons • Air Force lost its seven top scorers and five top rebounders from last season, thanks to graduations, departures and injuries. … Falcons guard Tre Coggins leads the team with 16.6 points per game and 2.5 3-pointers per game, both top-10 figures in the Mountain West. … This is the third consecutive year Air Force opens with a conference newcomer, beating Boise State and Nevada in the team’s past two conference openers.