At 10-3 and with some solid non-conference wins under its belt, Utah State may not yet be in "panic mode."
But it's hard to deny several troubling trends that have arisen in the Aggies' losses. With the latest loss on the road to Air Force - a team that was beaten by Jackson State at Clune Arena - Utah State fans have to start wondering if games like that are going to be the exception or the rule.
Jarred Shaw's absence hurt the Aggies — his presence probably would've made the difference in a one-point game — but there are deeper concerns as well that surfaced when he was eligible. Some of the most concerning:
Where's the D? • Since its first exhibition, Utah State's defense has been a lingering issue. On one hand, the Aggies have generally held opponents to solidly low percentages, especially from beyond the arc. On the other, there's nights like Wednesday when USU can't slide a defender in front of a post penetrator all night. While the Aggies were able to hold the Falcons to only a few field goals late, they gave up 24 free throw attempts, and Air Force made 19 of them. Between all the high-percentage two-point shots and the free throws, it was enough to let Air Force hang around for the late push and lead.
While it's tempting to say Shaw's return could help stiffen paint defense, lane penetration was also a serious issue against BYU and Pacific - both games that the Aggies had their senior center. Morrill said early in the year that the team had no "defensive stopper" to handle driving guards. The Aggies still don't. And with tougher guards ahead, the problem may only become more glaring.
Live and die with the long ball • Air Force's zone flustered Utah State last night, no question about it. On several possessions, the Aggies burned a lot of shot clock looking for ways into or over the zone. One of the results was 27 3-point attempts, of which Utah State made 10. It's not bad percentage-wise, but those 17 missed shots hurt - the Aggies got eight offensive rebounds on all shots, so most of those misses were simply empty possessions.
One of the problems with missing Shaw is that Utah State doesn't have a low-post guy they can give an entry pass and let him work. He gets zoned as well, but opponents have to play the perimeter a little looser because of his threat inside. Last night, the only answer the Aggies had was to shoot over the zone. When they hit, like on the run to start the half, life was good. When they missed, Air Force came back in a hurry. Whether Shaw comes back, or the Aggies find another answer with dribble penetration, USU needs to find a way to break down that defense.
Is the rebounding margin real? • By several measures, the Aggies are one of the best rebounding teams in the country, or at least in the top crust. Traditionally speaking, they get an average of 10.6 more boards than opponents. For those who say rebounding margin is arbitrary, KenPom.com lists the Aggies as the 76th best offensive rebounding team and the 12th best defensive rebounding team when you measure by percentages. But losing the rebounding battle to Air Force calls some of that into question. Is Utah State's edge on the boards a measure of their true ability, or more of their competition?
The Aggies clearly hustle after rebounds, and Kyle Davis' and Spencer Butterfield's stats more or less speak for themselves. But look at the margin in losses: plus-one against BYU; plus-two against Pacific; minus-four against Air Force. In the first two losses, it was a negligible advantage. In the last, it went against USU. The Aggies see rebounding as a strength, but perhaps games against not-so-solid opponents have built a bit of an illusory advantage there. Plus, without Shaw, USU must work that much harder to get boards without a 6-foot-10 man in the middle.
With only three losses, there is a small sample size for diagnosing exactly what's wrong with Utah State. But these issues seem to keep creeping up again and again. If the Aggies can't correct some or all of them, the Mountain West is going to be rocky climbing.
— Kyle Goon
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