San Diego State vs. Utah State Series Preview
Huge game with Mountain West contenders
First place on the line
Game: San Diego State (9-2) at Utah State (9-3)
Location: Logan, Utah
TV: Game 1: CBS Sports, 7:00 MT, Game 2: CBS, 11:30 MT
Odds: Aztecs -1 (KenPom) Utah State -0.2 (Torvik)
A rivalry is brewing in the Mountain West. San Diego State was long the face of the conference and is still considered so by many. Utah State is newer on the scene, but led by Craig Smith they’ve seen a lot of success in recent years. The fan bases both even do the same “I Believe” chant to start their games. San Diego State and Utah State have faced each other 6 times over the past 2 seasons, and the record in those games is an even 3-3. The Aggies have won when it counted most though, taking both meetings in the conference championship game. None more gut-wrenching than last season, when Sam Merrill, the 2019 MW POY, hit the game-winning shot with 2.5 seconds left on the clock.
Malachi Flynn, the 2020 MW POY, couldn’t answer, and the Aggies gave the Aztecs only their second loss of the season, in what would end up a season shortened by COVID-19.
Both Sam Merrill and Malachi Flynn have moved to the NBA, and these teams have some familiar faces now playing the role of the star for their teams.
Boise is still out there too, and can’t be overlooked, but this may be the toughest series of the season for both teams. No matter how one cuts it, these are two of the top 3 teams in the conference, and if either team can pull off two wins they will likely be the favorite to win the regular-season title.
The case for Utah State:
Utah State is rolling right now. They are 6-0 in the conference and seem to have found their groove after a slow start. They have the 23rd best defense in the nation, they’re the 23rd tallest team in the nation (both according to KenPom), and they have three top 10 players in the conference as of 1/13/21 (according to evanmiya.com). Their guards are starting to gel more and learn how to play together, and DPOY favorite Neemias Queta has shown that the Aggies can run their offense through him.
Meanwhile, SDSU struggles to put away a Nevada Wolfpack team that lost to Air Force, winning both games by five points or less. Their defense hasn’t looked as sharp as it did in the beginning of the season, and Jordan Schakel, who is likely the best shooter in the conference, has gone cold. He shot 30% from behind the arc against Nevada. Getting back on track against a tough Utah State team will be difficult to say the least.
Add in the effects that elevation can have on a body that’s not used to it, and Utah State should be primed for a series sweep.
The case for SDSU:
These Aztecs are battle-tested. According to KenPom SDSU played the second toughest non-conference schedule in the conference, and they’re the only team to play a tough schedule and have success. Utah State is 6-0 in the conference, but they did it against the bottom dwellers. Utah State has lost to every top 100 KenPom team they’ve faced so far. The Aztecs have beaten four such teams already. This Aztecs team knows what it feels like to take a teams best punch and still fight back for a win.
Matt Mitchell is making his case for conference POY, averaging 20 points and 9 rebounds during the Nevada series. He also draws fouls at an astounding rate. 7 per 40 minutes of game time, good for 27th in the country. If he manages to get Bean or Queta into early foul trouble it could spell trouble for the Aggies.
As for the Aggies having three top 10 players in the conference, the Aztecs have three top 5 players in the conference (still according to evanmiya.com.)
So the Aztecs are good enough to come into Logan and take a game or two.
Matchups to Watch:
This series will be a battle of Goliaths. Not figuratively (although they are two powerhouse teams), but quite literally. The strength of both of these teams lies in the front court.
Neemias Queta vs. Nathan Mensah: Mensah didn’t play in any of the three matchups last season as he was sidelined with a pulmonary embolism for most of the season. Due to that, these two haven’t played against each other since the 2019 MW Championship game. Queta has performed better in their matchups so far. Queta has averaged 10.66 points and 7 rebounds in games against Mensah, while Mensah has averaged 6.66 points and 8 rebounds in his career vs. Queta.
Their last game was over a year ago though, and both players have improved since then. Nathan has markedly improved on both sides of the ball, becoming the Aztec’s third-leading scorer and locking down the rim on defense. Queta still looks like a pro prospect and has improved his already impressive passing. Utah State likes to have Queta draw double teams and pass out to shooters. If Nathan can guard Queta without the help of a double team it will bode well for the Aztecs. If Nathan needs help Queta will be able to carve up the defense with his passing. They both also draw about 5 fouls per 40 minutes, so foul trouble could play into it as well.
Bean vs. Mitchell: Justin Bean is arguably the most versatile defender in the conference, as he’s able to guard all five positions well. At 6’7″, 210 lbs, he also has a claim as the best rebounder in the conference. He’s not much of a scorer in the traditional sense, but he’s very smart and knows how to position himself to score off of cuts or offensive rebounds.
Matt Mitchell on the other hand is probably the most versatile scorer in the conference. At 6’6″, 235 lbs, he’s strong enough to finish among the trees inside, and skilled enough to hit the outside shot (37.5% on the season.) He’s also become very adept at drawing fouls as most players can’t defend his size or skill without fouling, and he’s hitting his foul shots at an 82.1% clip on the season. Mitchell is also a great defender in his own right, and has taken to guarding the opponents best player to close out close games lately. Will Bean’s hustle and effort win out? Or will Mitchell’s skill overwhelm Bean. In 3 games last season Bean averaged 8.33 points and 7 rebounds, while Mitchell averaged 17 points (buoyed by a 28 point performance at home) and 5 rebounds.
Jordan Schakel is the best player in the series after the 4 previously mentioned. That’s no disrespect to the other players, Schakel is just really good when he’s on his game. If you need evidence read this.
Arguably the best shooter in the conference, he struggled against Nevada and only shot 31.25% from the field in the series. His normally stout defense was also hampered by shoe issues that had him sliding all over the floor.
If the matchups previously mentioned end up being a wash (which is a big IF), it will come down to the 3rd-5th best players on each roster to determine the outcome. Jordan Schakel gives the Aztecs a slight edge in that department. He’s in a shooting slump, but the Aztecs played 4 games in 8 days and were running on tired legs. Getting some rest should help him break out of the slump.
The Aztecs win the first game by a close margin, as their experience and tougher schedule help them fight off a Utah State team that’s used to beating up on the little guys. In the second game the Aggies come in more focused, and that focus combined with the effects of the elevation lead to an Aggies win, and the series is split.