Utah State’s first season in the Mountain West has proved that the Aggies aren’t yet on par with the top teams in the conference.
Victories such as Saturday’s over San Jose State show they aren’t at the bottom, either.
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Utah State (16-13, 6-11) is far from where it wants to be, and some close losses stand between the program and the season it was expecting. But in a 75-58 win over the Spartans on the road, only the second road success of the year in league play, showed that the Aggies still have some fight in them.
Coach Stew Morrill said that even beyond getting his 600th win, what pleased him most was that his players showed spirit even as the season winds down.
"The last two games, our guys have really fought against New Mexico and now San Jose," he said in his postgame radio comments on KVNU. "I’m glad they haven’t cashed in."
There’s one game left for the Aggies at home against Wyoming before the Mountain West tournament. The Cowboys have dropped three straight since losing Larry Nance Jr. for the season. Utah State’s Senior Night could give the team an additional boost.
What will winning prove? It can offer validation to a talented senior class. It can give valuable experience to returning underclassmen. And it may just put Utah State in the conversation for a postseason tournament berth in the CBI or CIT.
What has helped the last two games is assertiveness, especially on the defensive end. Utah State held San Jose State to 29.6 percent shooting — nearly a season-best night — and took eight steals. The Aggies were particularly good around the perimeter and allowed the 3-point-happy Spartans only six from beyond the arc.
Defense is almost the beginning and the end for the Aggies. They are 14-4 when they shoot better than their opponent. They also have the league’s second-best defensive rebounding rate at 73.7 percent, but they are 2-5 in league play when they allow double-digit offensive rebounds. Jarred Shaw’s success on the glass — he had a career-best 17 rebounds — is critical in that regard.
"Even when we didn’t make shots on our end, we could get stops," Spencer Butterfield told KVNU. "I think that’s the key for our team this year, we need to get those stops to win."
Utah State also needs to bolster its offense with 3-point shooting. While the Aggies clanked a number of close-range attempts at San Jose, a 9-for-20 night from the 3-point line helped carry them. They have not won a conference game without shooting at least 39.6 percent from that distance.
The recent signs of life from Utah State suggest evidence that the team has at last begun to embrace an identity and may be more ready to compete at the most critical time this year. Winning a few games at the end of the year could put a better spin on a challenging season. Utah State put the right foot forward Saturday night to start that process, but there’s still obstacles ahead.
"We’re going to have to be ready," he said. "It’ll be a chance to win a couple going into the tournament."
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