The Utah State basketball team really took that difficult three-game losing streak to heart.
What was once a troubled and frustrated Aggies team transformed into something more familiar: a defensive-minded bunch that plays hard and can get hot offensively in the blink of an eye.
It just took a wake-up call find themselves again.
“I think we just forgot for a minute what it takes to win at a high level,” senior guard Sam Merrill said after last Saturday’s win over Colorado State. “That losing streak helped remind us what we need to do.”
Since that stretch, Utah State has won four of its last five games, including three straight. The Aggies take that streak into Saturday’s matchup against No. 4 San Diego State, which has not lost one of its 22 games all season. The Aztecs beat the Aggies earlier in early January, marking USU’s only home loss of the season.
Utah State is now 6-4 in the Mountain West Conference — tied with Nevada and Boise State. And it’s been a return to its defensive identity that’s made the biggest difference.
During their three-game losing streak, the Aggies gave up 75.3 points per game and 47.7% shooting from the field. But in the last five games, including the overtime loss to the Broncos, they’re allowing only 62.2 points and 36.4% shooting.
“Defense is kind of one of the pillars that we focus on,” junior guard Abel Porter told The Salt Lake Tribune. “So the fact that we’ve been so good defensively kind of shows me and the team that our head’s in the right spot.”
UTAH STATE AT NO. 4 SAN DIEGO STATE
When • Saturday, 8 p.m. MST
TV • CBSSN
And it’s not like USU has played a soft schedule. Three of the five teams have winning records, and the victory over winless-in-conference Wyoming happened in a historically difficult road atmosphere. The Aggies beating the Cowboys marked their first road conference win of the season.
Coupled with the team feeling more like itself, the individual players have felt more like themselves lately. Throughout the season, Merrill, Porter, sophomore forward Justin Bean and sophomore center Neemias Queta have been hampered by injuries at one point or another.
Sophomore guard Brock Miller told The Tribune that improved health has helped the team practice better, crisper and sharper, and more players have been able to practice at full speed. Those players getting healthier recently has translated to better performances both in practice and in games.
Porter said having Merrill and Queta healthy in particular raises USU to another level.
“Just those two guys, when they’re healthy, I think our ceiling as a team is raised and our potential can go through the roof,” Porter said.
While that three-game losing streak feels far in the past, it’s clear that it still motivates the Aggies. Porter said the team could have wilted when it was struggling, but decided to pick itself up instead.
“The first step was not losing our heads and just sulking over losing three in a row and kind of throwing in the towel and separating as a team,” Porter said. “Instead we kind of ganged up and brought up together and pulled off this nice stretch.”
So far, the recent upswing is no fluke. But the Aggies are still in a worse position now than they were at the same time last season. After 10 conference games in the 2018-19 season, USU was 8-2.
Porter, however, thinks Utah State’s goal of winning another Mountain West title is still achievable.
Said Porter: “6-4 sounds really bad. But as you see what’s going on in the conference and everything else, we’re still up there. We’re still right up where we want to be. So we want to just focus on the next game and win the next game. We know that if we do that, all hope isn’t lost and we’re still in a great position.”
With only eight conference games left on the schedule, the Aggies might have to dig deep even deeper to make their conference hopes come to fruition. Junior forward Alphonso Anderson suggested that they at least have the right mindset to make that happen.
“Now we have that chip on our shoulders,” Anderson said. “We’re not the top of the Mountain West right now. We have to prove everything. We have to go get every game one by one and keep competing.”