USU looks to prove itself worthy of an NCAA at-large bid
Rest of the MW set to bask in the glow of what’s sure to be an instant classic
Judgement day: Is USU good, or truly great?
Tonight’s matchup between Utah State and No. 12 Nevada is surely the Mountain West’s game of the year. This blockbuster clash between a near-dominant Wolf Pack and Craig Smith’s upstart Aggies has it all: senior night in a hostile venue, a share of the regular season title, conference tourney seeding, NCAA tourney selection, the potential return of a once-powerful mid-major’s famed home-court advantage.
With a win, the Aggies likely elevate themselves above the bubble discussion and ink their names on the bracket for March. They’d also clinch the 2-seed in Vegas, setting up another potential showdown with UNR in the conference finals for an automatic ticket to the Big Dance. In other words, win and you’re (almost definitely unless some next-level BS happens) in.
Nevada will probably make the tournament either way, but a victory tonight would clinch sole ownership of a regular-season title and establish Musselman’s stacked squad as the true class of the Mountain West, capable of another deep tournament run after last year’s Sweet 16 appearance.
A bunch of overachievers picked to finish in ninth place versus a team nobody was sure would lose a single conference game this season for a share of the MW crown — tonight is what Mountain West hoops is all about.
Keys to a USU victory — Shoot above 35% from three
Nevada knows what’s in store tonight and will aim to seize momentum early. The Aggies can’t afford to get deflated over early hiccups, particularly in front of what will surely be an electric home crowd. Sometimes — like in Tuesday’s game against SDSU — shots won’t fall right away. USU starters shot an ugly 2-of-15 from beyond the arc earlier this week (4-of-21 as a team), effectively voiding an entire dimension of the Aggie offense from the contest.
Making up for that deficit with 46 points in the paint mitigated that problem Tuesday, but against Jordan Caroline and a more complete Nevada team that’s not a percentage the Aggies can afford. Utah State averages nine made threes per game at 36 percent clip in conference play — those are numbers the Aggies can live with.
Sam Merrill in particular (1-9 from deep, 6-20 overall, 19 pts against SDSU) needs to find his game tonight no matter what UNR throws at him.
Keep Queta on the floor for 26+ minutes
This game might just come down to the big man staying out of early foul trouble. No doubt Justin Bean will provide a nice spark off the bench (again) and Senior forward Quinn Taylor will deliver a solid 10pts/13reb game (again) but there’s nobody on either team who affects what happens everywhere on the court as much as Neemias Queta.
Queta does everything a center should. The freshman ranks first in blocks per game by wide margin (2.48) and fourth in rebounds (8.9), typically adding a much-needed layer of attitude to Utah State’s defense anytime he’s on the floor.
But the Wolf Pack isn’t easily intimidated — Cody Martin leads the conference in assists per game (5.3), and both Jordan Caroline and Caleb Martin are happy to make a living at the foul line. Nevada knows how to move the ball and draw a foul, and without its starting center present USU is often forced to adapt to the style of its opponent. Queta averages 26 minutes per game — and tonight every minute counts.
Win the rebounding battle
Craig Smith’s squad has escaped some tight spots this year with intense effort on the glass. The Aggies average 38 boards per game (a +7.1 margin over opponents), and simply put there’s just no replacement for limiting Nevada’s possessions.
Musselman’s crew will bring it tonight. There’s no real answer for Caroline in a college hoops uniform and the Martin twins could’ve each opted into the NBA draft last season or found legitimate success in Europe. Nevada sits atop the conference for a reason. A fine defensive effort, a red-hot Sam Merrill and Queta’s looming presence won’t be enough to top the Wolf Pack in a game like this. Limit offensive rebounds, use your bigs to their full potential and control the pace of this game — the Aggies must win on the glass to win on the scoreboard.