MW quarterfinal preview: Utah State vs New Mexico

MW quarterfinal preview: Utah State vs New Mexico

Mountain West Basketball

MW quarterfinal preview: Utah State vs New Mexico

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USU takes on New Mexico tonight in Vegas


Even after a 25-win regular season, the Aggies are ready to get greedy


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USU has sights set on MW crown, but the Lobos won’t go quietly

It’s been all smiles in Aggieland over the past nine days.

Claiming a share of the Mountain West title after a nice road victory in Ft. Collins ensured a well-earned rest for Aggie ironman and conference player of the year and Sam Merrill, who only took four minutes off over the last seven games. Merrill, coach Craig Smith and freshman Neemias Queta combined for four major conference awards, a first- and second-team all-conference selection and did so without inking any of these accomplishments on their bare chests like clowns.

And perhaps most importantly, Utah State’s 34 votes in the AP poll appear to fully endorse Smith’s squad as a legitimate threat for an at-large bid even if the Aggies don’t win it all in Vegas — which they might.

By all accounts, it’s been a banner week for the Aggies — but they better shake off the rust and the press clippings in a hurry, because the Lobos are no easy out.

Wyoming looked fully in control last night by halftime, shooting 7/12 from distance and holding an 11-point lead at the break. New Mexico took that invitation for an early tournament exit and responded with a 50-point second-half explosion, led by Vance Jackson’s team-high 26. Jackson poured in 13 points during the game’s critical 22-3 run, and an exhausting half against New Mexico’s full-court press took the legs out from Cowboys offense before it could regain its composure.

No doubt last night was partially a Cowboys collapse, but the Lobos did more than merely survive and advance. New Mexico showed up — fans included — and now appear ready to play the part of conference darkhorse contender against a Utah State team they nearly beat at home earlier this year (shoutout to Abel Porter, love ya buddy).

There’s a real chance this team will cause Craig Smith’s squad some trouble. The Lobos have multiple convincing wins over teams they probably shouldn’t have beaten, including an 83-70 victory against SDSU and an unholy 85-58 asskicking over Nevada. They also managed to lose at San Jose State by seven.

So. Yeah.

The Lobos are talented enough to beat anyone on their best night, they simply lack the consistency to be great — a position familiar to fans of any Aggie team between 2012-2018.

Fortunately, Utah State is a 2-seed for a reason. New Mexico’s defense Wednesday night ran Wyoming ragged, but there aren’t five defenders in the league better than Sam Merrill and basically no one who disrupts an offense quite like now-defensive POY Neemias Queta.

Don’t be shocked if the Aggies throw a zone at the Lobos from time to time and dare them to shoot their way out. New Mexico’s Anthony Mathis and Keith McGee are the only two real threats from beyond the arc, and even with their efforts the Lobos shoot 34 percent from deep as a team (25 percent last night, 32.6 vs USU this season).

Forcing bad shots will be especially effective if Utah State can win the battle of the boards. The Aggies held a narrow rebounding advantage in each of its wins against UNM this season, including a pair of double-double performances from Queta. As always, another key to this game is simply keeping Queta on the floor as long as possible (especially if supersonic Vance Jackson returns).

Single-elimination is no joke. Coach Smith will have the Aggies in the right mindset with eyes on a championship and a ticket to the NCAA tourney, but there’s still no overcoming nine days on the sidelines — and New Mexico won’t be easily intimidated after last night’s victory. Rebound, force New Mexico into uncomfortable shots, frustrate ball movement, and advance to conference semis.

Fail to do so, and the high-flying Aggies likely find themselves back on the bubble.

Prediction:

USU 85
UNM 78

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