Mountain West championship preview: Keys to a Utah State victory

Mountain West championship preview: Keys to a Utah State victory

Mountain West Basketball

Mountain West championship preview: Keys to a Utah State victory

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Utah State to play for its first MW tourney trophy


Every game Sam Merrill plays in an Aggie uniform is a blessing


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Aggies going for it all in Vegas

Utah State plays in its first Mountain West title game this afternoon against San Diego State, with an eye toward securing an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament and extending what must be the most surprising season in program history.

In two games this week, the Aggies have taken the floor once in jittery survival mode and once in a truly awesome fully operational beat-down mode. Against an Aztec team acclimated to big games in Vegas, expect this contest to fall somewhere in between. Here are today’s keys to the (championship!) game.

Diogo Brito. Yes, you heard me.

No Aggie has settled into his role this week more than Diogo Brito. Utah State’s most crucial X-factor recovered from a horrid first half against New Mexico to keep what is now a five-game double figure scoring streak alive. On the year, USU is a perfect 13-0 when Brito scores in double figures.

Brito’s ability to facilitate ball movement on offense, lock down on defense and find ways to be effective when his shot isn’t falling has made a tangible difference over the past two weeks — and when his shot is falling, look out. Over the last five games, Brito is second on the team with 14.2 points per game and shooting 51.1 percent (23-of-45) from the floor, including 47.4 percent (9-of-19) from behind the 3-point line.

Rebounding

Utah State doesn’t lose the battle of the boards often, but Nathan Mensah can do serious damage on the glass. In these squads’ first matchup, Mensah snagged 10 boards en route to a 38-35 rebounding advantage and a 68-63 Aggie loss. Utah State shot well in that game, particularly from distance (41.7 percent), but giving up 14 offensive rebounds allowed SDSU too many second chances.

In a more recent matchup, the Aggies managed to tighten the screws late against the Aztecs at home despite shooting a dismal 19 percent from beyond the arc, cruising to a 70-54 victory in one of USU’s most encouraging defensive displays of the year. Neemias Queta, Justin Bean and Quin Taylor all need to play big tonight and limit SDSU’s offensive possessions.

Let SDSU beat themselves

The Aztecs have more experience in this game than any team in the conference. SDSU has made the conference title game nine times in the last 11 seasons, and won’t be easily intimidated after surviving a late scare last night against top-seeded Nevada.

They’ll also regress to an iso-heavy hero ball on offense, and that’s something of a USU defensive specialty. Craig Smith’s squad can switch and throw helpside defenders at any offense at any time, often daring teams to force bad shots late in the shot clock. The Aztecs have decent shooters and a legit presence in the middle with Mensah on the court, but they rarely win in a shootout, preferring instead low-scoring physical matchups and collecting points from the foul line.

This will be an intense, physical game for both teams. Officiating will be a factor, crowd atmosphere will be a factor, almost every minute detail will be amplified in a title matchup between an up-and-coming Aggie team and an SDSU squad that always seem to click in March.

But if Utah State gels on defense and forces McDaniels and Watson to play hero ball, the preseason ninth-place selected Aggies will be cutting down nets.

Bonus key

Sam Merrill is the best player on the court — if all else fails and things look bleak, he may just carry this team to a championship all on his own. Sam Merrill forever.

Prediction:

Utah State 81
SDSU 73

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