It was always going to be a challenge.
Coach Stew Morrill never assumed the Mountain West would be easy. As soon as the Aggies had gotten a short break from a final, injury-plagued season in the WAC, by April they were in the weight room, conditioning for the difficult year ahead.
Down the stretch
The Aggies have four games left in Mountain West play, and they’ll have to win out to reach .500 in the conference before the tourney. Their upcoming opponents:
Saturday, 7:05 p.m. » Fresno State (13-14, 6-8)
Tuesday, 7:05 p.m. » at New Mexico (19-5, 10-2)
March 1, 6:05 p.m. » at San Jose State (7-19, 1-13)
March 5, 8:05 p.m. » Wyoming (17-8, 8-5)
No. 6 SDSU 60, Utah St. 45
TUESDAY’S LATE BOX SCORE
UTAH ST. (15-11)
Shaw 5-11 0-0 10, Medlin 1-7 2-2 5, Roland 0-5 0-0 0, Butterfield 3-8 2-2 10, K. Davis 0-4 0-0 0, M. Davis 0-2 0-2 0, Noma’aea 2-2 0-0 6, Berger 1-3 1-2 3, Moore 2-4 1-1 5, McGlaston 1-2 0-0 2, Stone 2-2 0-0 4.
Totals 17-50 6-9 45.
SAN DIEGO ST. (23-2)
Spencer 5-7 0-1 10, Thames 1-9 2-2 4, Shepard 2-7 0-0 4, O’Brien 3-6 2-3 8, Davis 6-10 0-2 12, Allen 0-1 0-0 0, Polee II 1-4 0-0 3, Quinn 2-5 0-0 4, Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Johnson 0-0 0-0 0, Staten 0-0 0-0 0, Shrigley 5-9 1-1 15.
Totals 25-58 5-9 60.
Halftime—San Diego St. 35-22. 3-Point Goals—Utah St. 5-13 (Noma’aea 2-2, Butterfield 2-4, Medlin 1-4, Moore 0-1, Roland 0-2), San Diego St. 5-13 (Shrigley 4-7, Polee II 1-3, Quinn 0-1, Thames 0-2). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Utah St. 32 (Shaw 7), San Diego St. 33 (Davis 8). Assists—Utah St. 8 (Medlin 3), San Diego St. 14 (Thames 5). Total Fouls—Utah St. 16, San Diego St. 12. A—12,414.
How frustrated, then, must the Aggies have been to see another game — an unsightly defeat to nationally ranked San Diego State on ESPNU — beat them down. They had worked so hard to at least compete on this very stage, but in their biggest moments so far, the Aggies (15-11, 5-9) haven’t found the answers.
What really hurt, Morrill said, was that there weren’t really even glimmers of hope in the 60-45 loss.
"We never really gave ourselves a chance," he said.
With their latest fall, the Aggies have now drifted into nearly uncharted waters since Morrill took over the program. At 5-9 in conference play, Utah State will have to win its final four games just to break even in the first season of the Mountain West.
Morrill hasn’t had a losing record in conference play since 1995, when he was at Colorado State.
The Aggies have had to dramatically scale back expectations of competing in the upper half of the conference — a 2-7 start derailed title hopes quickly. But even with a four-senior starting lineup, a roster with good shooters and dogged rebounders, and even a coaching staff led by a man with nearly 600 wins, the frustrating truth is that the equation hasn’t added up to wins.
A razor-thin margin of error seems to guide this season for Utah State. When it plays hard and executes well, it can beat the lower-tier teams and push the best to the edge. When it doesn’t, it has results like it did Tuesday night in Viejas Arena.
"We could have come in here and played very well and got beat, but we didn’t," Morrill said. "We came in and played bad and got beat. Credit them for making us play bad, they’re a good team. They’re hard to deal with their pressure, their length."
The Aztecs’ speed and length bothered the Aggies much like UNLV’s pressure and length did in the loss before. Open shots rarely presented themselves. Scoring in the paint was harder than shooting 3-pointers. Utah State lost the ball either to the long-limbed Aztecs or threw it away trying to get around them.
"What they did in our first game coming off screens and making shots, we took away from them [Tuesday]," SDSU coach Steve Fisher said. "We made it hard for them to get good looks, and that can wear on you."
What momentum the Aggies had seized from a three-game winning streak has turned cold. The best Mountain West teams have them figured out.
The challenge now, for Morrill, his staff and his players, is to find new goals as the old ones go unmet.
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.