Why Utah State men’s basketball keeps winning

The Aggies now have an 11-game winning streak and are 9-0 in conference play.

(Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP, pool photo) Utah State guard Steven Ashworth, left, dribbles the ball as Colorado State guard Kendle Moore defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Logan, Utah.

Logan • Utah State men’s basketball coach Craig Smith has a mantra after every win: The team will enjoy it until midnight and then move on to the next game.

It’s like the Aggies are in a never-ending “Cinderella” loop that occurs only when the play basketball. But so far this season, that mentality has worked.

The Aggies beat the Colorado State Rams 83-64 on Tuesday night at The Spectrum, marking their 11th straight victory overall and giving them a 9-0 record in Mountain West Conference play. Before the season began, the Aggies predicted to finish fourth in the conference.

So far, that prognostication has proven to be more poisonous than the apple the Evil Queen gave Snow White. The Aggies now sit atop the conference, with the 8-0 Boise State Broncos behind them for the moment.

Winning as consistently as Utah State has puts more attention on the team as the season inches closer to the conference and NCAA tournaments. USU is projected to be on the bubble as a 12th seed in the Big Dance, per ESPN Bracketology.

But the Aggies aren’t feeling any extra pressure because they have a one-track mind.

“I feel like we just don’t dwell on the past and just try to be there every day,” junior center Neemias Queta said. “Just trying to be the best versions of ourselves every game that we get in there, every practice. That’s really hard to do and I feel like we do that pretty well.

After beating San Diego State twice and Colorado State once, the narrative that USU hasn’t had to face tough competition is fading fast.

The Aztecs came into Logan last week with a lengthy road winning streak that the Aggies snapped like a dry twig. With the Rams, the Aggies held the best 3-point shooting team in the conference to just 33.3% from that distance while outshooting them in the process.

Aggies coach Craig Smith said each of USU’s last five opponents have played different styles. And with the two-game series going on in the conference due to the coronavirus pandemic, there isn’t much time to make adjustments and rest before the second game.

But Utah State’s train continues to chug along and ram everything in its path.

“You have to able to play any style that’s thrown out there,” Smith said.

Defense has been Utah State’s calling card throughout the long winning streak. The team has held opponents to just 53.5 points per game in the last 11 games while scoring 78.5. And with the Aggies playing with the kind of confidence on that end like it has lately, it’s difficult to imagine the wins stopping any time soon.

It wasn’t always like this. Utah State lost three of its first four games this season before the streak started on Dec. 8. But there was a feeling internally that the team would right the ship.

“In the first few games, [our defensive ability] didn’t quite show,” Queta said. “But I felt like we stuck together and we didn’t let those losses take our eyes off the prize. We just wanted to stay focused on what we were doing and no the score, we knew how good we could be. We’re still climbing the ladder.”