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Utah State men’s basketball’s recent play could make it a factor in the Mountain West basketball race again

Aggies have won four straight going into pair of games at Air Force

Utah State guard Brock Miller (22) and San Jose State forward Chase Courtney scramble for the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP, Pool)

The Utah State men’s basketball team experienced some adversity in its first few games of the 2020-21 season. The Aggies lost three of their first four, and their first two losses were by an average of 20 points.

But in the last three weeks or so, the Aggies are starting to look like a formidable team. They’re defending better. They’re sharing the ball better. They’re communicating better. They’re scoring more efficiently.

It’s all led to a four-game winning streak that started before two of their games were canceled because of COVID-19 issues within the program.

Utah State’s last two wins have come in Mountain West Conference play, where the team is 2-0 heading into two road games over three days against the Air Force Falcons (3-3, 1-1 MW). Those wins came easily, though, in consecutive blowouts over San Jose State.

But as the conference schedule continues and the opponents start to get more difficult, coach Craig Smith likes the trajectory his team is on at the moment.

“I feel like we’re playing way more connected on both sides of the ball,” Smith said Wednesday in a videoconference with media.

USU sits second in the Mountain West behind Colorado State, which is 1-0 in the conference and 4-1 overall. The team is also one of only three undefeated teams in conference play, the other two being Colorado State and Boise State.

But that record will be tested in the upcoming two-game series against the Falcons. Last season, the Aggies got outworked in the second half in their only road game against Air Force. It was a game after which Smith cited a lack of discipline and toughness among his players, but also one they rectified once they were back in the confines of The Spectrum.

The circumstances, however, are a little different this time around. Both games against Air Force will be on the road this year in an effort to limit travel due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. And to top it off, the Aggies are coming back from a break over the Christmas holiday.

Smith said the team’s mindset is positive and it’s ready to face an Air Force team that features Chris Joyce and A.J. Walker — both average double digits for the Falcons — and its Princeton offense. But he also acknowledged the strange timing in the schedule.

“We’ve come back I just feel like in a very good spot,” Smith said. “Now that being said, Air Force might not be the ideal team to be playing coming off a four-day break just because of what they do and how they play. It’s just a different animal.”

But what helps the young and inexperienced Aggies is they have players who have faced the Falcons before and know what to expect. Guys like Neemias Queta, Justin Bean, Brock Miller and others are relied upon as secondary coaches on the floor to help their younger teammates prepare for Air Force’s offense.

“Veteran guys that have been through it have such a better feel for how to guard it and truly understand the pace that they play with,” Smith said. "

This year’s Air Force team is in the bottom half of the conference in offensive categories like scoring offense, scoring margin and field goal percentage. So the Aggies, who rank second in the Mountain West in scoring, might have the advantage there, particularly if they continue to trend up.

Smith said he still needs to see more consistency from his bench, but has liked recent performances from Sean Bairstow, Steven Ashworth and Trevin Dorius.

If the Aggies can get both games against Air Force on the road, that could be the jolt they need to surprise some of the prognosticators that picked them to finish third in the conference this season.

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