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Aggies struggling with athletic gap in new league

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Utah State's Spencer Butterfield (21) has his shot blocked by UNLV's Bryce Dejean-Jones, left, and Khem Birch during an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014, in Logan, Utah. (AP Photo/Herald Journal, John Zsiray)

By Kyle Goon

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Feb 16 2014 01:56PM
Updated Feb 16, 2014 11:30PM

Logan • Among Utah State’s 10 losses this season, there have been games in which the team simply didn’t play hard. Those defeats explain themselves.

Then there are the ones like the Aggies suffered Saturday afternoon — a game in which they never quit, but never came back either.

The explanation coach Stew Morrill came up with after the 73-62 loss to UNLV was how athletic the Rebels were. He called it "the story of the game."

"They made shots and played hard," Morrill said. "I don’t think we didn’t play hard, we just didn’t play very well. They’re the reason we didn’t play well."

The understated implication for Utah State (15-10, 5-8) is that it wasn’t athletic enough to compete when UNLV played its best basketball. As the season fleshes itself out, it appears to be a recurring theme for the Aggies: Against the best teams in the Mountain West, Utah State faces an athletic deficit. The speed, size and raw talent of teams such as UNLV, New Mexico and San Diego State give them an edge that the Aggies have to work extra hard to overcome.

Utah State can’t always compensate for that disadvantage. In the second half, the Rebels made that clear with their fast breaks, their penetration and their blocks that so frustrated the Aggies.

"In the second half they were just pushing the ball in transition," Jarred Shaw said. "They beat us up and down the court there for a while. They played better than us."

Some of the big keys for Utah State in its three-game run were converting shots in the paint and playing solid defense. The Aggies didn’t do well on both counts Saturday.

The second-half shot charts could not be more different for Utah State and UNLV. The Aggies were 7-for-20 from 6 feet and in, while the Rebels were 13-for-16 from the same range.

Led by Khem Birch, UNLV’s length and shotblocking deterred a lot of high-percentage attempts the Aggies typically can make. And Utah State’s own defense had no definitive answers for the many ways it was attacked.

"Then we had a really difficult time guarding them at the other end," Morrill said. "Man, zone — whatever we tried they seemed to handle."

The Aggies have already made significant improvements in the second half of conference play, which includes more consistent effort. In each of the last four games, Morrill hasn’t had cause to say his team didn’t play hard.

But Saturday’s defeat, and others like it this year, raise an unsettling question: Even assuming Utah State can play its best basketball headed into the conference tournament, will it be enough to beat the Mountain West’s elite teams?

The Aggies have a short weekend to chew it over before heading out to face San Diego State. And they hope the result of that game on Tuesday will offer a more positive answer than their last game did.

kgoon@sltrib.com

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