Utah State defense trending downward in back-to-back losses to Boise State

The Aggies allowed an average of 49% shooting from the field and 38% from the 3-point line in two games against the Broncos.

Utah State center Neemias Queta (23) dunks the ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Boise State Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021 at ExtraMile Arena in Boise, Idaho. (Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman via AP)

The Utah State men’s basketball team hangs its hat on the defense end. Even in the days when Sam Merrill and Neemias Queta shouldered the load on offense, it was the way the Aggies stopped opponents that put them in position to win back-to-back Mountain West Conference Tournament championships.

But in the last two games — both against the formidable Boise State Broncos — it’s the defensive end that’s been the thorn in Utah State’s side. After losing Wednesday in a game the team felt was mainly lost on that end, USU allowed the Broncos to shoot 73.9% in the second half of Friday’s 81-77 road loss. Boise State also shot 66.7% from the 3-point line in the half.

Coach Craig Smith said the team’s defense of late has him a bit worried.

“The trend that I’m concerned about is how we’re guarding right now,” Smith said. “We give up clearly over a point a possession both games, 74% [shooting] in a half and allow 54% for the game. It puts a lot of pressure on your offense.”

Speaking of offense, Utah State’s production practically mirrored that of Wednesday night. Junior center Neemias Queta had another stellar game, scoring 30 points and adding 11 rebounds. But again, he didn’t get much help outside of junior forward Justin Bean’s 11 points and junior guard Brock Miller’s 10.

Relying so much on Queta is another trend that has emerged in the last two games, but one that the Aggies might not be as worried about.

“We have the talent, we have the guys to be able to get the job done and help him out,” Miller said.

But Miller agreed with Smith in terms of what’s going on with the team’s defense right now, particularly down the stretch of games.

“We need to get better at just executing on the defense end when it comes down to those last few minutes of the game,” Miller said. “I’m not worried about it. I think it’s something that we can fix and we can control.”

Smith said part of the reason USU’s defense has struggled has been because of injuries to Miller and freshman starting point guard Rollie Worster, who missed his second consecutive game due to a lower leg injury. While Miller played in the two games against the Broncos, Smith said a back issue almost kept his sharpshooting guard out of Wednesday’s game. Smith said both of those players are integral to the team’s defense.

Things don’t get any easier for the Aggies going forward. Their next two games are against Nevada, which has won four straight games and just behind USU in the conference standings.

And with the last two games Boise State representing Quadrant 1 losses for the Aggies, their NCAA Tournament hopes hinge almost solely on winning the conference tournament for the third straight year.

“We really struggle to get Quad 1 games,” Smith said. “People generally don’t want to play us. It’s difficult to schedule. So when you get those opportunities, you have to find a way to make it happen. We gave ourselves two opportunities to win, but weren’t able to find a way to win. So it is frustrating.”

Miller said everything the Aggies want is still ahead of them. But for them to achieve their goals, it starts and ends on defense.

“We’ve always been able to score enough and find ways to score — and we will,” Smith said. “But we’ve won at the higher level because of how we guard, and we have to get better.”