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Steve Luhm and Lya Wodraska
Steve Luhm and Lya Wodraska cover Utah State athletics for The Salt Lake Tribune. Lya Wodraska is on twitter at @LyaWodraska, Steve Luhm is on twitter at @sluhm

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Utah State's Spencer Butterfield guards San Jose State's Rashad Muhammad as he attempts to take a shot during an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 4, 2014, in Logan, Utah. (AP Photo/Herald Journal, John Zsiray)
Utah State basketball notes — defensive emphasis, Aggies supporting Shaw, and more

Stew Morrill's said it before: When it comes to defense, he can sound like a broken record.

Like a preacher on a pulpet, he expounds the virtues of good defense every day. But this season, even Morrill is starting to think he's taking his emphasis further than ever as the Aggies struggle to stop their opponents.

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"I've never worked on it this much, to be frank with you," he said addressing the media Thursday. "If we were anywhere close defensively to where we've been offensively, it would be nice, but we're not."

It boils down to penetration: Utah State can't stop it.

On one level, that has to do with effort and discipline. But at a certain point, the Aggies simply don't have enough quickness to defend some of the better penetrating guards.

It was an issue in lossess to BYU, Pacific and Air Force. It will almost certainly be a problem when the Aggies face one of the league's best guards in Deonte Burton this weekend in Reno.

"We don't have a lot of guys that can stop penetration," Morrill said. "We have to continue to work on it. When you're not exceptionally quick, you can't go for fakes or jab steps. You have to be a little bit more disciplined."

That's been the overwhelming focus in practice this week, Morrill said. The Aggies' guards have been practicing one-on-one defense, closing in on space and not biting on fakes. They'll likely be practicing it all year.

Against Burton, Utah State will likely look for help defenders to come on to him to stop one of the Mountain West's top scorers from roaming free.

"He's a great player," Preston Medlin said. "It's all about team help. It's not about one guy. One guy isn't going to stop him. It's about how we play as a team."

Aggies glad to have Shaw back, brushing aside negative response

There's no doubt from a basketball perspective that it's good for Utah State to have senior center Jarred Shaw back. After five games of battling much bigger guys in the post, Ben Clifford will attest to that.

"Jarred is just a huge presence down there," Clifford said. "Teams almost have to double him. I'm more built for the four. It's hard for me to defend the five when guys are close to 300 pounds."

Shaw's reinstatement to the team has attracted a degree of criticism from some fans and observers for a variety of reasons. Some fans were vocal on social media, disapproving of Utah State bringing back Shaw after he had pleaded guilty to a marijuana possession charge. Cache County prosecutor Tony Baird - who was not assigned Shaw's case - made perhaps the most public statement of disappointment in an interview with the Logan Herald Journal.

Morrill, however, has made his opinion clear that Shaw has been punished in accordance with university and team rules, and the team is glad to have him back in every sense. On Thursday, Morrill said the rest of the team had tuned out any negative commentary on Shaw's return.

"They're going forward. I don't think it's an issue," Morrill said. "They're supportive of Jarred and worried about being a college student going forward. I don't think we've got a lot of guys worrying about all that."

Nevada center could be tough match-up

Speaking of big men, the Wolfpack has got a tough one.

A.J. West, a transfer who wasn't eligible for the team's first 11 games, has since been a key part in Nevada's 3-0 start to Mountain West play. He's put in 9.6 points and 8 rebounds per game while swatting 11 shots and generally being a pain to score against.

Morrill called West "a blue collar, hard-nosed tough guy" in the film cut-ups he had seen. Clifford echoed that sentiment.

"He's just constantly working," he said. "He gets a lot of offensive rebounds. He plays defense pretty hard. We're just going to have to make sure to box him out and make sure he gets no angles. His motor is always going."

— Kyle Goon


Twitter: @kylegoon

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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