Mountain West Basketball: San Jose State vs. Utah State–Preview, Odds, Prediction
Spartans, Aggies meet in MWC matchup
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What: San Jose State Spartans (12-7, 3-3) @ Utah State Aggies (15-4, 4-2)
When: Saturday, January 21st – 4:00 MT, 3:00 PT
Where: Dee Glen Smith Spectrum; Logan, UT
How To Watch: Livestream on Mountain West Network
Odds: Utah State -11 Over/Under 140
With one-third of the league schedule complete, tiers are starting to form in the Mountain West Conference. The two combatants meeting in Logan on Saturday sit firmly in the middle, though one has designs on forcing their way into the upper tier as the season progresses. On the heels of an 11-2 non conference performance, Utah State seemed to have the pieces to be a serious contender in the MWC. To be fair, their placement in the middle-of-the-pack has as much to do with how the schedule was set up as it does their play on the floor. They have beaten who they were supposed to beat, as their four wins are against teams 7, 8, 10, and 11 in the standings. And they’ve lost to two serious contenders, Boise State and Nevada, with the key part being those were both road losses. They’ll get a chance to avenge both of those losses later on in the regular season. First order of business though is a visit from San Jose State on Saturday afternoon.
The Spartans are massively improved from a year ago, but they must now find a level of consistency, as they’ve see-sawed between good and poor efforts the last four times out. If that holds true, we’re in for a good one at the Spectrum, as SJSU was run out of The Pit on Tuesday night, in a game that was never competitive. That game aside, the road does not seem to fluster San Jose State, as they have already won in Fort Collins against Colorado State and showed well in Boise, falling to the Broncos on a Marcus Shaver 3 near the buzzer.
Utah State had not won many close games prior to Tuesday when they went down to the wire with UNLV. A huge Steven Ashworth triple gave them the lead with a minute to go, and Sean Bairstow iced it with a tough fadeaway in the lane with 23 seconds left. Though he cooled off in half number two, Taylor Funk led the way with 20 points, including six made 3’s. The Aggies shot the ball well (51% overall, 44% from deep), but didn’t attempt a lot of shots, only 47 for the game, compared to 57 for the Rebels. That was due in large part to 21 USU turnovers caused by the relentless UNLV pressure. Fortunately, that shouldn’t be much of an issue on Saturday, as the Spartans force very few turnovers.
San Jose State has the opposite defensive philosophy as UNLV, a super passive, containment style, just trying to keep dribble penetration in front and rely on their 7-foot rim protector Ibrahima Diallo to deter opponents from getting too deep without repercussions. One stylistic advantage the Aggies can expect, is trying to get Diallo in mismatches if/when Spartans boss Tim Miles utilizes his switching man-to-man defense. If Diallo is pulled away from the basket on pick-and-roll switches, it does 2 things. One it removes his paint presence, which makes it more enticing for Utah State’s creators to attack the rim. It also will have Diallo guarding a quicker shooter; not what Miles wants. His alternative is to give his extended 1-3-1 half-court zone a try. But that might be asking for bigger problems against a crisp passing, free flowing offense like USU possesses.
For the Spartans to keep pace in this one, they will have to shoot better than they did in Albuquerque, when they made only 34% of their shots. Omari Moore led the way with 24 points, while the rest of the team combined for just 33. Moore will have a size and athleticism advantage regardless of who guards him, but if his teammates aren’t scoring the ball, it won’t matter. In addition to the game against UNM, San Jose State was poor offensively against Nevada as well, reaching only 40 in a bad home defeat two weeks ago. The role players have to step up and make shots, which is difficult to do on the road. Alvaro Cardenas and Tibet Gorener have shown glimpses at various stages of the season, but like most of their teammates, they are coming off of rough games. It will be interesting to see if Miles veers from the normal pace and tempo SJSU plays with to try and get some easy baskets. Utah State will gladly get out in transition, push the pace, and play fast, while the Spartans are one of the slowest teams in the country. Normally when you have a contrast in styles, whoever can impose their will and get the tempo they want will win the game. In this instance, Miles may not have the luxury of playing the way he wants.
You have to expect the Aggies to put up points in this one, for multiple reasons. We looked at the schematic issues earlier. Additionally, they simply have too many skilled offensive players on the perimeter. In Ashworth and Bairstow there are two guys that old school fundamental basketball coaches would use to show a group of young campers how to play the game, as they excel at the dribbling, passing, and shooting that the game was grown on. Throw in a new age type of player in Funk, who at 6’9” does virtually all of his damage from behind the line, and it’s surprising at times that they don’t average more than the 81 points per game they tally. That’s not how basketball works of course, it’s never that simple. The point being, this is a talented offensive club, with the ability to string points together in bunches. Super sub Dan Akin is the guy doing the dirty work inside, a guy that all teams need, and at 11 points and 7 boards a night, he has been a worthy addition from the transfer portal.
There’s still a lot of basketball to be played, but for an NCAA tournament hopeful like Utah State, this is a game they can’t afford to drop. By most accounts, they are on the outside looking in right now, but they’ll have plenty of opportunities for marquee wins in the outstanding MWC. For the Spartans it’s about continued progression and trying to stack up as many wins as possible, with the hope of remaining above .500 and getting an NIT berth, which would be an amazing accomplishment for Miles and his program.
Who has the edge in this one? Anyone who has paid attention to the Mountain West this year knows that home court advantage has been huge. Aside from that, there is this just more firepower on the Aggies roster. San Jose State is an outstanding rebounding team on both ends, but USU does not surrender many offensive rebounds, so that neutralizes a weapon the Spartans usually count on. The potential defensive mismatches also tilt towards Utah State here. The extra shots they did not get against UNLV will help too, as they are unlikely to turn the ball over much. As they have done the last couple of times they laid an egg, expect SJSU to bounce back with a great effort Saturday. But it probably won’t quite be enough to get the W, and it says here the Aggies hold serve at home.
Prediction: Utah State 78 San Jose State 70