For a team that has one player on the all-WAC teams, UT Arlington has sure given Utah State fits this year.
Stew Morrill praised the team in his Tuesday media conference call, saying he's been impressed with the Mavericks for making a competitive squad out of players who don't necessarily stand out on their own. Even if the WAC postseason awards didn't recognize a lot of the team's players, Morrill said he has respect for UT Arlington.
"You just take each of their little parts and some people might look at them as not having as much talent as some teams, but the sum of all their parts is very good," he said. "I like what he's [UTA head coach Scott Cross] has done with them, I'm impressed with their team."
That defense has risen to No. 11 in the Division I ranks in field goal percentage. Opponents shoot only a hair over 38 percent against them. In two losses this year, the Aggies shot a combined 33.7 percent.
That comes from the team's pressure and help defense, which has become one of the conference's more impressive units. And the Mavericks have also become a better offensive team as their defense has dealt more successfully with starting transition runs.
"They're flying. You better get matched up, you better get back, you better know what defense you're in or they're going to hurt you," Morrill said. "They got down big at New Mexico State, but in the second half their break just really hurt New Mexico State."
One of the few advantages Utah State will have this time is the Aggies bring back Spencer Butterfield, who scored 23 points on UT Arlington in a close match-up in January. Without him, the offense languished in a 61-46 blowout.
"You still have to go play and play well, but I think it may add a little bit of confidence to us to have Spencer in that game, assuming he gets through the week OK and is able to go," Morrill said. "That's almost a day-to-day concern. You kind of breathe a sigh of relief each day when practice is over and he's upright."
Mountain West Tournament venue could be an issue
With Utah State about to head into the WAC tournament for the final time, Morrill reflected for a while on what the postseason experience might be like next year.
One issue: The court isn't neutral. The Mountain West plays its tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center, home of UNLV. Several coaches have complained in the MWC.
When Morrill joins the conference next year, he'll probably join them. He said Tuesday that he didn't accept the reasoning of Rebels coach Dave Rice - a former assistant of Morrill's for a season - that playing at UNLV adds pressure to the home team.
"Nice try, Coach Rice. Not buying that. I think if you're going to have a tournament it needs to be on a neutral floor. We just got stuck many times playing the home team. That's a road game, I don't care how you slice it."
That is likely to fall on deaf ears for a while: The MWC's deal lasts through 2016. But the next time the issue rolls around, Morrill says he'll be ready to sound off.
"Neutral floor is the way it should be and certainly the way I favor," he said. "I'm sure I'll have some complaints when we get to the Mountain West next year when tournament time comes around, but I guess that's a ways away."
— Kyle Goon
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