The stakes – and emotions – will be high when the Wolf Pack come to visit
1/11 – vs. Nevada (Logan, UT)
This game is going to be huge, as the Wolf Pack will also have this one circled on their calendars – especially because this is the only matchup of the two teams this year. Last season saw a post-game fracas go viral in the aftermath of the Aggies’ upset victory over Nevada in Logan. Though most of the involved parties from Nevada’s team are gone now, the fans have surely not forgotten about the incident. As if that storyline weren’t enough, Utah State could put an end to the Wolf Pack’s three-year run as Mountain West champions. New head coach Steve Alford’s club won’t go down without a fight, though. Returning guards Jazz Johnson and Lindsey Drew will provide veteran leadership by a team with many fresh faces, including Jalen Harris, Eric Parrish, Johncarlos Reyes, and KJ Hymes. If Alford is able to jump-start Nevada’s rebuild after losing so much from last year, this game could have serious implications in the league title race. Regardless, this should be one of the most anticipated games of the Mountain West season and the energy at Smith Spectrum will be through the roof.
2/1 – @ San Diego State (San Diego, CA)
Brian Dutcher has worked hard at building the Aztecs roster, including bringing in two very promising transfers for the backcourt. Malachi Flynn and KJ Feagin both came south to San Diego after starring at Washington State and Santa Clara, respectively. Flynn averaged 15.8 points and 4.3 assists for the Cougars in 2017-18, while Feagin put in 17.5 points nightly as a junior before an injury sidelined him for nearly all of last season. Big man Yanni Wetzell was also brought in as a grad transfer from Vanderbilt. Those three will join the returning cast of Matt Mitchell and Jordan Schakel, as well as brothers Nathan and Joel Mensah for San Diego State. That roster should give SDSU a very good chance at a second-place finish, but names alone don’t win games. When the Aggies come to Viejas Arena, expect Dutcher to throw the kitchen sink at Utah State. If the Aztecs are to have any shot at winning the league this season, beating USU at home is a virtual prerequisite. And for Craig Smith’s club, a road win here could be a big boost for their NCAA Tournament seeding.
Naturally, over the course of 30-plus games, every team will have more than just five important matchups. In their earliest test, the Aggies face off against intrastate foes Weber State and their potential Big Sky Player of the Year in Jerrick Harding. Another Utah rivalry comes to pass in December when the team meets BYU in the Beehive Classic. After that, a matchup in the Battleground 2K19 event against South Florida in Houston could cause problems. The Bulls’ LaQuincy Rideau is one of the country’s premier defenders and will do his best to lock down Merrill.
As far as other Mountain West games, Utah State now has the unenviable position of getting everyone’s hardest punch every night. Aside from the games against Nevada and SDSU, the Aggies should be especially wary of a late February trip to The Pit. Utah State faces Paul Weir’s New Mexico side in the regular-season finale. If the Lobos can fully live up to the rising hype around their team, which features former Ohio State starter JaQuan Lyle joining up with a talented but underachieving core of returning players, that game could even have the Mountain West title on the line. The Aggies were an upstart squad that butted their way up to the top of the league and perhaps rattled a Nevada team that went from a trendy preseason Final Four pick to flaming out in the first round as a #7 seed.
Craig Smith will need to keep his team focused every single night to avoid a similar fate.
Smith and his team are not just fighting for a Mountain West title in 2019-20. Utah State has a legitimate chance to grab a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament, which would all but guarantee a short trip to either Spokane or Sacramento under the selection committee’s bracketing guidelines. So, while their league games will obviously be of great importance, the Aggies’ ability to grab at least one marquee win away from home during the non-conference season will be vitally important.
If they come up empty in those games and/or stumble to any significant degree during league play, the Aggies could find themselves in less-than-ideal conditions come March. But a couple big wins in the early season could give the team an easier road to the Sweet 16 – and maybe beyond.
Andrew is a current USBWA member, covering college basketball for multiple outlets, including Mountain West Wire of the USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Busting Brackets of the FanSided Network. He also runs the Dieckhoff Power Index, a college basketball analytics system, and provides bracketology predictions throughout the season.