Signs of trouble: Don’t panic yet, but this is an important week for USU basketball

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At what point do you call the fire department?

Seems like a simple enough question upon first thought, but it becomes slightly more complex the more you think it through. At what point does that stray ember from the fire ignite just a tad too much grass for your garden hose to quench? Obviously, you’re not calling for help as soon as the ember leaves the fire, but you’re also not waiting until the fire starts enveloping entire buildings. There’s a line that’s crossed somewhere in there, and until you’re personally watching the flames grow, it can be incredibly difficult to pinpoint exactly where that line is.

So should we pulling be the alarm on Utah State men’s basketball? Perhaps that may be a tad premature, but there sure are clouds of smoke surrounding the program, and flames may not be far off. 4-5 is not where fans were hoping the team to be at this point of the season, and it’s certainly not the situation players and coaches have worked to be in.

That’s a factoid to keep in mind at all times with collegiate sports. An infinitesimally small portion of college athletes and coaches fail because of a lack of effort, and there is no reason to believe any of Tim Duryea, the rest of the coaching staff, or the players are guilty of such. Aggie basketball is looking for answers, and there is still every plausibility that they may find one.

This week would be a fine time to stumble upon some solutions. With UC-Irvine at home and a matchup with Utah in the Beehive Classic on Saturday, USU faces two quality opponents which would signal a positive future were the Aggies to win. On the other hand, 4-7 would not be a pretty sight.

Wednesday night offers the Aggies a prime shot to avoid that fate. UC-Irvine comes into the contest 4-6 and ranked 209th in the KenPom rankings. With their only DI wins coming over Northern Arizona and Denver, USU should be able to hold serve in this game. Only Tommy Rutherford and Evan Leonard average more than 10 points per game for the Anteaters, and they each average only 10.5 and 10.1 points per contest. The true key for Utah State will be not getting destroyed on the glass. UC-Irvine ranks 35th in the country with 40.2 rebounds per game, a full four more than USU, who stand at 155th. Much of the Anteaters’ damage comes on the offensive glass, as well, with UC-Irvine grabbing 11.9 per game, good for 18th in the country. Utah State has only been outrebounded in three games this season (Weber State, Gonzaga, Valparaiso), but they have lost each one. Preventing UC-Irvine from doing the same should be the primary goal for Utah State on Wednesday.

A stiffer test for the Aggies comes on Saturday, in a technically-neutral but realistically-away game in Salt Lake City. The Utah Utes are 6-1, with their only loss coming to a talented UNLV team. Aggie fans should probably prep for the pain of watching David Collette logging a double-double, and Donnie Tillman may also find himself with an elevated game on Saturday. There’s a solid chance that 5-foot-8 senior Justin Bibbins will get the Sam Merrill treatment for most of the game, but the Utes have enough talent to stretch the Aggie defense to its max. Duryea said following the BYU game that the team was close to piecing it all together and becoming a really solid defensive team. Saturday will be one of USU’s toughest tests at realizing such a standard.

More concerning than the team’s defense, however, may be the inconsistency of the offense. Merrill looked capable of leading the team during Koby McEwen’s absence, but the two have yet to regain the chemistry they displayed through much of last year. Alex Dargenton and Klay Stall have both struggled with foul trouble, limiting their ability to deliver screens on offense for the team to run actions off of. DeAngelo Isby has shown flashes of being an offensive wizard, but his defensive inefficiencies have forced him to a bench role. Julion Pearre should solve some of the team’s issues, but he’ll need time and many more game minutes before he’s ready to make his full impact. There is a workable offense somewhere on this team, but the Aggies are running out of time to find it.

In short, USU has a plethora of questions and has yet to find many sustainable answers. Early non-conference games are often a melting pot of lineups and strategies in an attempt to find the best version of a team, but the Aggies are struggling to find what that version may be. This week’s matchups against the Anteaters and Utes are two of the last opportunities to find it before Mountain West play begins, when each game carries far more implication.

You would hope a pair of non-conference games in December wouldn’t carry that much gravity, but there is a real chance the whole roof could cave in on Aggie basketball this week. 4-7 would be a major blow to the team’s already tattered confidence, and would guarantee the team would enter conference play with a losing record. Several teams around the MW look remarkably improved over last season, and USU may struggle to measure up to many of them if their current level of play stretches into January and February.

The hottest fires may make the hardest steel, but they can also burn down the whole factory. This week may go a long way in determining which fate awaits Utah State.


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