Turns out the Cancun Challenge wasn’t just a clever nickname.
Aggie hoops suffered its first loss of the season Tuesday to junior guard Dakota Mathias and the No. 17-ranked Boilermakers — and most of us outside of USU’s locker room were sort of weirdly okay with that. Purdue might be the highest-quality opponent the Aggies will face this year, and while Utah State head coach Tim Duryea certainly isn’t one to celebrate moral victories, dropping a game to a team likely headed for March’s big dance isn’t exactly cause for panic either.
This one hiccup in an otherwise dominant start to USU basketball’s young season provided some valuable insight into what the Aggies have on both ends of the floor, as well as a few definite vulnerabilities. Let’s have a look at the outing’s biggest takeaways:
The backcourt needs more nasty
Playing a big-time team early in the year visibly rattled some of the good guys in the Aggie backcourt, particularly throughout key stretches of the first half. With the score tied 25-25 and under five minutes to play in the game’s opening period, Purdue ripped off a 14-2 run before the break while the Aggies pondered what kinds of pie they serve in Cancun hotels.
Leaning on starting guards Shane Rector and Koby McEwen to respond, the Aggie offense suddenly lacked the run-and-gun ferocity seen in the team’s first few games, buckling under the pressure of a highly effective Purdue defense.
The Boilermakers all but extinguished the oft-unguardable Rector, who managed just eight points in 30 minutes of playing time — half of which came from the charity stripe. Legitimate freshman force of nature McEwen wasn’t any better, hitting just one bucket all night. The pair combined for 3-of-14 shooting, 0-for-4 from beyond the arc.
For what should be one of the Mountain West’s most promising backcourts, this swagger-less outing isn’t gonna cut it. Rector and McEwen are the type to impose their will on a defense and take pride in doing so — it’s fair to expect a revenge game for the pair later today against Texas Tech.
Dargenton shows legit X-factor potential
What a night for Alexis Dargenton — 5-of-7 from the floor, 14 points, nine rebounds, a block and a steal in 24 minutes played. If Utah State plans on exceeding expectations this season — and it looks like that’s what coach Duryea has in mind after being picked 6th in preseason polls — it starts with depth off the bench. Dargenton feasted on Purdue’s reserves, spurring the Aggies’ 31-6 bench scoring advantage in a major way Tuesday. Assuming the starting offense regains its typical firepower, the Aggie bench could be the advantage that powers Utah State above the rest of the field.
Hit your damn free throws.
The holy standard of unbreakable basketball commandments goes as follows:
— Thou shalt not save the ball under thine opponent’s basket
— Thou shalt not pass it over the top of people
— Thou shalt not leave the man with the ball
— Thou shalt not accuse the ball of lying, for the ball canst not lie
— Thou shalt skin thy knees in pursuit of the ball
— Thou shalt hit thine free throws
Just because it’s last on that list doesn’t mean it’s the least important — Utah State left seven points on the floor Tuesday after going 7-of-14 from the foul line, including three straight misses from Jalen Moore. Come on, man.
Tickets for the Julion Pearre hype train are now on sale
And that train is boarding soon. With several Aggies appearing flustered by Purdue’s athleticism and length, Pearre went to work like it was business as usual, casually throwing together a 4-of-5 shooting night for 10 points, four boards and two assists with just a single turnover. Pearre’s unassailable sharpshooting should probably make a more frequent appearance in future games, as he’s proven to be one of USU’s most effective offensive weapons.
Defending the rim is hard
Quinn Taylor, Ngor Barnaba and Norbert Janicek each had a lackluster evenings, essentially filling space while Purdue’s stellar big man Isaac Hawes beat up on the entire Aggies’ interior defense for 26 points and five rebounds. Hawes may be a freak athlete, but USU’s big men are going to face several of those this season and vulnerability near the rim is a major concern.
The offseason acquisition of assistant coach Spencer Nelson was a great get in this regard. It remains to be seen how quickly he can mold the Aggie bigs into a fearsome frontcourt. Rebounding and avoiding foul trouble will continue to be keys in every game this season.
There’s (probably) no stopping Jalen Moore
Purdue executed its game plan for Rector and McEwen to near-perfection, but whatever strategy it had for containing Moore fell noticeably flat. Moore found ways around the Boilermakers’ lengthy defense to the tune of 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting, adding five boards and three assists to his line. While the talk surrounding Rector’s potential for all-conference accolades is in fact warranted, it’s Moore who serves as Utah State’s bulk scorer regardless of opponent or location.
The fro’ed phenom is as solid a vocal captain as you could ask for, and leading by example on the floor goes a long way in tightening this group up into a cohesive unit. There are several fresh faces on this team, and Moore’s leadership will determine whether USU rebounds today against another good opponent or falters after yesterday’s blowout loss.