Mountain West Basketball: Utah State vs. Boise State–Preview, Odds, Prediction
Aggies, Broncos meet in Saturday MWC showdown
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What: Utah State Aggies (13-2, 2-0) @ Boise State Broncos (11-4, 1-1)
When: Saturday, January 7th – 4:30 MT
Where: ExtraMile Arena; Boise, ID
Stream: FuboTV — get a free trial
How To Watch: FS1
Odds: Boise State -1 Over/Under 138
A massive early season conference game is on tap late Saturday afternoon in Boise. Then again, the way the Mountain West is shaping up, roughly 70% of the league games could be qualified as massive from now until the end of the conference tournament. These two teams for sure seem destined to be in the thick of a very interesting conference race. Utah State enters 2-0, with two wins by double figures, although the opponents may be headed for the bottom half of the standings. Boise State comes in 1-1, splitting a pair of thrillers, each decided on the games final possession.
The initial edge will go to Boise State for the simple fact that the game is being played at ExtraMile Arena. Unsurprisingly, home teams have had a huge advantage early on in the conference slate; if you want to finish in the top three of the MWC and have a chance at an at-large bid to the Big Dance, you are absolutely going to have to protect your home court, because getting road wins looks like a tougher task by the day.
The Broncos rode that wave on Tuesday night, against upstart San Jose State. The Spartans stormed back from a 14 point second half deficit and actually had the lead in the final minute. After a made free throw to tie it, BSU forced a turnover, head man Leon Rice called timeout, and he put the ball in Marcus Shaver’s hands. There’s a reason the 5th year senior has the nickname ‘Big Shot Shave(r)’, and he showed why – dribbling the clock down and burying a deep, step-back three with two seconds left that was dead center and sent the enthusiastic crowd of 8000+ into a frenzy. Expect more than 8k, and possibly even a sellout, to file in on Saturday and provide a tremendous college basketball atmosphere worthy of two high-level squads.
For Boise State, the offense has been extremely balanced, with four players averaging in double figures, led by Shaver’s 15 per night. Against the Spartans, prior to his game winner Shaver only had six points, proving the Broncos aren’t reliant on the star point guard to have a big night in order to win games. Chibuzo Agbo, Max Rice, Tyson Degenhart, and Naje Smith did the lion’s share of the scoring, as there’s not much production coming from the bench. Degenhart has contributed in many ways, but has struggled with his outside shot for much of the season, as his poor 3-pt % shows (26%). If he can get it up anywhere close to the 42% he shot as a freshman last year it will add an extra dimension to this offense. In truth, the outside shooting as a whole has been below par, as only Agbo has good numbers. Obviously you will take the big shots that win games for you (i.e. Shaver’s vs. SJSU), but the percentages probably need to creep a bit higher for the Broncos to hit their ceiling.
Most of the team’s offensive numbers are middle-of-the-pack. In three of the four losses it’s really been poor shooting that has held BSU back, although Shaver’s absence certainly contributed to the loss at Santa Clara. Only in the conference opener at Nevada did the defense let the Broncos down, though credit must be given to the talent and shot making of the Wolf Pack. One thing Boise State has done well is protect the basketball, including only giving it up 8 times against San Jose State. The Spartans are solid defensively, and possess a 7-foot rim protector inside, but they aren’t super aggressive. This is similar to what Utah State will bring to the table. You hate to use the word passive, because it’s a very good defense, but the Aggies aren’t trying to turn you over, they just want to play sound defense, stick to the scouting report, and rebound your misses. Don’t expect a lot of second chance points for the Broncos, but they also won’t beat themselves with turnovers.
Shifting to Utah State, throughout much of their 9-0 start to the season, all the talk was about their smoking hot three-point shooting and how it was unsustainable. That may have been true, but the Aggies have proven in their two league games that they can win in other ways, and that’s the mark of a very good basketball team. Against Air Force on Tuesday, USU attempted only five shots from behind the arc in the first half, connecting on two, in a half in which they scored 44 points. Maybe they were simply taking advantage of the size mismatch against the Falcons, but against a very stout, athletic Fresno State defense, there were only 7 made threes in a double-digit Aggies win.
The shooting numbers are still off the charts. Steven Ashworth, clearly one of the most valuable players in the league to this point, is hitting 54% of his attempts, and there are multiple others that defenses must chase off the 3-point line. When your ‘worst’ shooter from deep is at 36% you are doing pretty darn well. But as highlighted in the paragraph above, USU does much more than just shoot the ball well. It’s a testament to coach Ryan Odom’s offensive system; great spacing, constant movement, crisp passing, and unselfishness. The Aggies 18 assists per game is good for 14th in the nation, with Ashworth, Max Shulga, and Rylan Jones each dishing out around 4 per night.
On Saturday, they will face a rugged Broncos defense that grades out highly in most defensive metrics and has teams shooting very low percentages against them, both inside and from the 3-point line. Much like Utah State, BSU cleans up their defensive glass, allowing very few second shots. In their first two league games, they did have a bit of difficulty guarding playmakers Kenan Blackshear (Nevada) and Omari Moore (San Jose State), who each seemed to get by their defenders and finish at the rim, or find an open teammate when help arrived. As good as Ashworth and the Aggies offense has been, that’s one thing they may lack – a downhill guard who can attack the rim and finish in traffic. That is a bit of an edge for the home team.
This one should be a dandy, and action packed. Utah State plays at a fast pace, and while Boise State prefers to operate in the half court in crunch time, they are fine getting up and down the floor for stretches of games. The depth advantage goes to USU. Odom gives significant minutes to eight players, and seems comfortable with nine. Rice and the Broncos on the other hand are pretty much settled into a seven man rotation barring foul trouble, which did affect their game versus Nevada (and about half of the other MWC games thus far). BSU has also won four straight in this rivalry, with sweeps in each of the last two seasons, so there may be some payback on the minds of the Aggies. Still, it’s hard to look beyond the home court edge here. Both teams are battle tested, and have won and lost close games. There is no reason to think this one won’t be tight for 40 minutes either. Who is going to make the last big shot? It says here it’s going to be Boise State, and the Broncos hold serve on their home court in a thriller.
Prediction: Boise State 72 Utah State 68