USU, UNLV battle for breakthrough
College basketball • Aggies visit the Rebels for Mountain West showdown.
Published: January 21, 2014 03:01PM
Updated: January 22, 2014 10:16PM
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Utah State basketball coach Stew Morrill

Las Vegas • There will be a first on Wednesday night — guaranteed.

Either Utah State will win its first conference road game, or UNLV will win its first conference home game.

The up-and-down nature of the Mountain West is perhaps best characterized by the Aggies’ next game at Thomas and Mack Center, pitting two teams that have bounced back and forth a bit in the early weeks of conference play. Utah State is feeling the brunt of that burden, coming off a loss in the last minute to Boise State.

“We’re getting a true taste of the challenges of the Mountain West,” USU coach Stew Morrill said. “In a lot of leagues, there’s maybe not a lot of separation between teams. It’s a matter of a few more close wins than another team can make you anywhere from third to eighth or ninth.”

The Aggies have lost their Mountain West road games by an average of just over 4 points. The Runnin’ Rebels feel their pain, recording a win over conference powerhouse New Mexico, but losing home games to both Air Force and Nevada.

Wednesday’s game is only the sixth Mountain West game for each team, but there is also a palpable sense that this week’s games will start separating the haves from the have-nots, the good from the average.

Utah State may be without leading rebounder Kyle Davis on Wednesday, but players still say they feel that a breakthrough could be coming.

“We’re getting better and better every game,” said Spencer Butterfield. “It doesn’t necessarily show that with our wins and losses, but I think we’re learning from our losses. We keep taking that into the next game, and we think we’ll peak at the right time.”

The matchup will feature an intriguing battle. Utah State is one of the most accurate 3-point shooting teams in the country, and UNLV is among the best teams at denying long shots. The Aggies and the Rebels are both statistically strong rebounding teams, although Davis may be out with a knee injury.

Historically, Utah State has struggled against the Rebels, going 3-27 in series history. Of course, that history has a huge gap: The Aggies haven’t played them since 1996.

No current Aggie has played against UNLV, and the one most familiar with the team is freshman Viko Noma’aea, a Vegas native who is expecting to see up to two dozen friends and family in the crowd. Utah State could potentially benefit from playing in Thomas and Mack, the site of the Mountain West tournament, by getting accustomed to the surroundings.

“They have great fans, great support,” Noma’aea said. “Their student section [is] pretty good as well. They get them going like our Hurd gets us going. It’ll be a battle, but I think we’ll pull it out.”

kgoon@sltrib.com

Twitter: @kylegoon

Utah State at UNLV

O Thomas and Mack Center, Las Vegas

Tipoff • 9 p.m.

TV • CBS Sports Network

Radio • 1280 AM The Zone

Records • USU (12-5, 2-3); UNLV (11-7, 2-3)

Series history • UNLV leads, 27-3

Last meeting • March 2, 1996 at USU; USU 82, UNLV 69

About the Aggies • Utah State is the No. 2 deep shooting team in the nation, hitting 42.4 percent of its 3-point attempts. … Sharing has been essential for the Aggies, who average 17.9 assists per game. … Sophomore point guard Marcel Davis has taken care of the ball, with a 3.41 assist-to-turnover ratio for the sixth-best mark in the country.

About the Rebels • Junior forward Roscoe Smith leads the nation with 12.4 rebounds per game. … UNLV is one of the top-five swatting teams in the country, averaging 6.7 blocks per game. … Although the Rebels are physical, they average only 16.2 personal fouls per game for the 14th-best mark in Division I.