Mountain West Basketball: Utah State vs. Loyola Marymount--Preview, Odds, Prediction

Mountain West Basketball: Utah State vs. Loyola Marymount--Preview, Odds, Prediction

Mountain West Basketball

Mountain West Basketball: Utah State vs. Loyola Marymount--Preview, Odds, Prediction


Mountain West Basketball: Utah State vs. Loyola Marymount–Preview, Odds, Prediction

Aggies, Lions set for showdown in Vegas & @MWCwire

Game 8: Utah State Aggies (7-0) vs. Loyola Marymount Lions (8-3)
When: Saturday December 10th – 10:30 MT, 9:30 PT
Where: Michelob Ultra Arena; Las Vegas, NV
How To Watch: Livestream – Sports Network LLC
Odds: Utah State -7.5 Over/Under 147

Vegas baby! Utah State will put their unblemished mark on the line in some late night action Saturday in the entertainment capital of the world. The Aggies will take on a suddenly dangerous Loyola Marymount team, in the nightcap of a tripleheader inside the Mandalay Bay. The games are part of the Jack Jones Hoopfest, a two-day, five-game extravaganza at the Michelob Ultra Arena. Fellow conference unbeaten New Mexico will participate on Monday, taking on San Francisco.

The game is slated for a 9:30 local time tip, and that is assuming the two games prior don’t run long, which as anyone who watches college hoops knows, is a risky assumption. We don’t see many games slated to start after midnight on the east coast, so the Aggies body clocks will need slight adjusting. Aside from that, USU should be rested and ready to go, having been off since a Sunday night thumping of the aforementioned Dons of USF.

Their opponent in this one, the Lions out of the West Coast Conference, have won 6 of 7 after a 2-2 start. Among those six wins, are neutral site wins over Georgetown and Wake Forest, a road win at Grand Canyon, and a home win against the Aggies conference-mate Nevada. The loss was to another MWC program, Colorado State, on the night Isaiah Stevens returned from injury for the Rams. While those wins may not be top-25 caliber, for a team coming off an 11-18 season, that’s a nice batch of W’s.

LMU coach Stan Johnson has experienced both ends of the spectrum in his two full seasons at the helm. A breakout 2020-21 campaign saw the best Lions finish in almost 20 years. With expectations raised for last year, the combination of injuries and some chemistry/locker room issues, led to the wheels falling off in the back half of the season. To this point in 22-23, all seems well in Los Angeles, as Johnson tries to return LMU to the glory days of Bo Kimble and the late Hank Gathers.

Eight to nine Lions are getting significant minutes, and the rotation has been fairly consistent depending on matchups. 5th year senior Cam Shelton has been a stud through 11 games, with a split of 18/6/4 per night, adding 2 steals a game, playing 35 minutes a night, and shooting 39% from three-point land. He teams with Jalen Anderson to comprise a more than serviceable backcourt. Ohio State transfer Justin Ahrens was brought in to aid with outside shooting, and hasn’t quite gotten it rolling yet, but is capable of getting hot, and has contributed in other ways.

The frontcourt has some depth and there are options at Johnson’s disposal. He has four bodies that he throws out there, and with the exception of Charles Barkley-clone 6’6” Keli Leaupepe, they don’t do much stat-stuffing. Leaupepe goes for 15 and 7 per game, but the other three – 7-footer Rick Issanza, and a pair of 6’8” forwards, in Alex Merkviladze and Michael Graham, are out there to protect the paint on defense, set solid screens, get on the floor for loose balls and grab the occasional rebound. The size and strength inside defensively, has allowed the Lions to get after it a bit more on the perimeter defensively, something Johnson wants to see.

As for the Aggies, they have gotten to 7-0 largely on the heels of an explosive offense. Ranking #1 in the country in 3-pt efficiency and % will do that for you. USU is knocking down an amazing 45% of its shots from deep, with multiple guys at the ready to catch, fire, and hit if given open looks. Interestingly, two of the three leading scorers come off the bench, a testament to the buy-in of the roster, and to what 2nd-year coach Ryan Odom is building in Logan. Steven Ashworth has been all-conference caliber, scoring 19 a night, shooting 54% from behind the arc, and assembling a dynamite 5 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He came off the bench until Sunday’s outing against USF, when steady PG Rylan Jones missed the game with a concussion. Jones is likely to miss tonight as well, so Ashworth probably slots in the starting five.

Dan Akin is the other super-sub. The 6’9” 6th-year senior played for Odom at UMBC and they are reunited now for Akin’s last season. He gets starter minutes, averages 14 and 8, does all of his damage in the paint, and much of it at the foul-line, drawing a ton of fouls in the process. As for the starters, when the term ‘stretch-4’ was created, it was with Taylor Funk in mind. The 6’8” grad transfer from St. Joe’s would have been a power forward throughout the 90’s and 2000’s. But he is an absolute sniper from deep, forcing defenses to crowd him from well beyond the 3-point line. 60% of his shot attempts are threes, and he’s connecting at an even 50 percent rate, not too shabby. He is also contributing 9 rebounds a game. Deserving a mention too, is Max Shulga, the fourth of four Aggies averaging in double-figures, chipping in 12 per game.

That’s a lot of weapons for the Lions to slow down. Few teams can match the firepower of this Utah State team, and most of them reside in the power conferences. The spacing and ball movement is top-notch and make them difficult to defend. The Lions have guarded better during their upswing, but this will be their most challenging test. There are a couple of areas in which the Aggies rank low. One is offensive rebounding, and LMU grades out very highly in rebounding on both ends of the floor, so second shots will be at a premium tonight for USU. The other is defending the three-point line. While Loyola Marymount does not shoot the three at a super-high rate, almost half of all their field-goal attempts come from deep. This means we’ll likely see a lot of shots fired up from behind the line, and enough will go in to keep the Lions hanging around. One thing to consider is when playing games like this in arenas used for various events, the backdrop for shooters can often be tricky. That is something to keep an eye on from the first two games at the venue tonight. Ultimately though, the Aggies have too many weapons, and should do just enough to move to a perfect 8-0 on the season.

Prediction: Utah State 79 Loyola Marymount 73



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