Snowmageddon. The icepocalypse. A regular Thursday in January. Whatever you choose to label Cache Valley’s current frigid state, odds are you’ve got some time on your hands. So go ahead and switch the laundry into the dryer, finish up that Travelers marathon (there are only 12 episodes anyway), microwave some leftover soup and check out the things you may have missed in the first full week of Mountain West basketball.
Take #1: Aggies’ loss to Boise looking better already
The Broncos are so hot right now. Riding a six-game winning streak to the top of the conference standings, Boise State boasts narrow wins over Utah State on the road (83-80), CSU at home (74-73) and a blowout victory over UNLV in Las Vegas (77-59) for the Mountain West’s only unblemished 3-0 record. Painful as it may be to admit, BSU is shaping up to be the conference’s team to beat, with a slight edge over predictable powerhouse Nevada and well ahead of a SDSU team that… you know what? We’ll get to them in a minute.
Aggie fans took the Dec. 28 home loss to the Broncos hard — like, really hard — bemoaning the prospect of a lost season despite the fact that it wasn’t even freaking January yet. Of course losing on your home court stings. It’s frustrating to see weaknesses from early in the season still unmended. It’s hard knowing you can’t console yourself with a donut on your way home from the Spectrum because Nick Duncan already laid waste to the valley’s entire supply before the game. Perhaps the Aggie fanbase is simply primed to expect the worst after a disastrous football season, or maybe we’re all just pessimists (that’s totally possible), but let’s all let the three feet of snow outside chill us out a little. Here are some facts that are facts:
— The Broncos came within five points of knocking off current No. 15 Oregon on the road
— Boise’s Chandler Hutchison is a star, to the tune of nearly 19 ppg and climbing
— The Aggies are still 5-3 in the Spectrum
— Their three home losses came by a combined ten points.
— Utah State is the only MW squad with a road win % above .500 (2-1)
— It is freaking January, and this team is two wins away from leaping to the top of the MW
Are there areas of concern? Obviously. But the panic button shouldn’t be on the table yet. In fact, it shouldn’t even be even in the state because the Aggies were super nice and loaned it out to San Diego.
Take #2: The Aztecs are off to a rocky start
Don’t expect San Diego to finish the season scraping the bottom of the barrel — but do enjoy them being there now. At a decent 8-6 overall but 0-2 to start conference play, the Aztecs may be showing the first signs of losing their spark. Those two losses aren’t necessarily awful — New Mexico and Nevada are well-coached teams playing great basketball — but the schedule for SDSU now steers the Aztecs toward Boise, where they stand a decent chance of dropping to 0-3. Jeremy Hemsley has stepped into the famously defensive-minded squad’s bulk scoring role, but the offense’s overall readings barely register a pulse on the national scale:
— 70 points per game (262nd)
— 36.1 rebounds per game (211th)
— 11.1 assists per game (296th)
— .421 field goal pct (278th)
…Not a good look. For fair comparison’s sake, here’s Utah State’s same stat line:
— 73.7 points per game (185th)
— 35.6 rebounds per game (233rd)
— 15.6 assists per game (80th)
— .464 field goal pct (94th)
It’s worth keeping an eye on whether this once nationally relevant powerhouse is finally in pass-the-torch mode. There’s a universal rule in sports requiring good teams to get bad and bad teams to eventually get good, and losing ground to a conference making strides towards greater competitiveness seems to indicate an SDSU team on the downswing.
Take #3 Coach Neal is salty
New Mexico really thought they were going to sneak a road win out of the Spectrum Wednesday night. Fresh off of his team’s triumph over SDSU, coach Craig Neal saw the Aggies’ 0-2 record, saw the snow, saw the thinned-out winter break crowd, and forgot that trap games are a real thing until the scoreboard read 79-75 in favor of the home team.
Aggie fans should be ecstatic. Duryea coached Utah State to a masterful performance, responding to every Lobo run with poise and getting the best out of his special players when he most needed it. Moore and Rector played smart, collected basketball. Norby was great. Dargenton’s timely blocks were great. McEwen continued to emerge as the conference’s most likely candidate for freshman of the year. But the most brilliant stroke of gameplanning came in the form of a lineup change, resulting in newly-named starter Sam Merrill throwing down one of those stat lines that earns a fast pass into fan favorite territory after just one game.
Merrill netted 13 points, shot 3-of-6 from deep and tallied eight assists without a turnover — and he did it all casual-like. The Lobos thought this Merrill kid was dealing Poker while he was busy playing Candy Land with a stacked deck of double purple squares, reaching the finish line while they all wandered around the Candy Cane Forest wondering how the hell they were gonna guard all of his endless passing lanes, which Merrill exploited with truly remarkable court vision. Holy crap was Sam Merrill awesome on Wednesday.
Following the loss, coach Neal had this to say:
“It’s a difficult venue and a hard place to play, but nobody came and we have to take advantage of that. We can’t let a team that’s second-to-last in the league in offensive rebounds have 19 second-chance points. Our guys had a very mature approach against San Diego State, but I thought they had a very immature approach in the second half of this game. We can’t allow a team that’s scrapping and trying to get their first conference win to score 79 points.”
The Aggies get UNLV at home before taking off to Laramie. Buckle up for what could be a wild ride through conference play — wild in the fun way, not the Mario Kart drifting onto Main Street because Logan doesn’t know how to clear its roads way.