Logan • Taken in all at once, it can be seen for the gauntlet it is.
At Boise State. At UNLV. Back home for San Diego State and New Mexico.
The Utah State basketball team is standing on the precipice of its toughest games stacked back to back. Coach Stew Morrill is as aware of how daunting it will be to face the four teams voted at the top of the conference preseason in a row, so he’s trying to keep his players focused on the game ahead.
“It’s about as tough a stretch as you’re gonna get,” he said. “What we need to do is worry about Boise State, and then worry about the next one after that. You worry about them as a whole group, you get a little overwhelmed at what you have to do.”
The Aggies (12-4, 2-2) have been overwhelmed already this season on the road, with losses to Air Force and Nevada to start conference play. Those unexpected defeats have shaken them into the realization that the Mountain West will be no cake walk.
With the Broncos (12-5, 2-2) dead ahead, Utah State begins a true walk through the fire. Boise State returns five starters from its NCAA tournament squad last season, and they can put up points in a hurry.
“They’re drivers, so we’re going to have to stop them from driving,” freshman forward Jalen Moore said. “We’re going to just try to do what we can to get to their shooters, because they have a lot of guys who can shoot threes. Our post guys are going to have to get used to guarding outside, because a lot of guys can shoot.”
Although Utah State returned plenty of veteran talent itself, its effort has been a question mark at times this season.
More than once, Morrill called out his team’s intensity - or lack thereof - on defense. Seniors said practice wasn’t as consistently buzzing as it needed to be.
Those shortcomings, the team says, were reflected particularly in the team’s last loss to Nevada, when Utah State couldn’t nail a shot to save itself. After the 62-54 defeat, a shocked locker room was forced to look hard in the mirror and see that the team wasn’t doing enough to compete in the league.
“I think that was kind of a stunner,” Morrill said. “We knew we were a little bit deadbeat, but they practiced well and with a lot of energy and carried that [into the Colorado State game].”
At least in the short-term, there has been a positive turnaround. Defense helped the Aggies overcome a slow start Wednesday until they found their footing against the Rams. Passing and 3-point shooting continues to be among the group’s best strengths, while the Aggies have masked their weaknesses - turnovers and guarding penetration - with effort.
Will it be enough to compete with the Mountain West’s elite teams? These next two weeks will tell if Utah State can hang, or if there’s a true talent gap between the newcomers and the Aztecs, Lobos and other top squads.
Ahead of the most challenging games it will face, the Aggies still think they have what it takes - as long as they work to their potential.
“Coach Morrill does a good job of stressing that to us,” senior guard Preston Medlin said. “We need to play hard every day, we need to play hard every game. It’s a tough league, and anybody can beat anybody. So we just gotta keep fighting, keep playing hard every game.”
Utah State at Boise State
O Taco Bell Arena, Boise
Tipoff • Saturday, 7 p.m.
Streaming • ESPN3
Radio • 1280 AM
Records • USU (12-4, 2-2); BSU (12-5, 2-2)
Series history • USU leads, 28-8
Last meeding • March 3, 2011 in WAC championship; USU 77, BSU 69.