Mountain West Basketball: New Mexico vs. Utah State–Preview, Prediction, Odds
Lobos, Aggies meet in MWC battle in Logan
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What: New Mexico Lobos (19-3, 6-3) @ Utah State Aggies (17-5, 6-3)
When: Wednesday, February 1st – 8:30 MT
Where: Dee Glen Smith Spectrum; Logan, UT
How To Watch: FS1
Odds: Utah State -4 Over/Under 155
As the second half of Mountain West Conference play kicks off, Utah State gets the favorable schedule turn that they’ve been waiting for, and they’ll welcome New Mexico to town in the team’s only meeting of the season, and the only MWC game on the schedule Wednesday night. Both squads sit 6-3 in league play and a full 2 games behind leader San Diego State (the Aztecs play at Nevada Tuesday night).
In a scheduling quirk, the Aggies got their most difficult road games out of the way early. To be clear, there are no easy road victories in conference, especially this year. But of the 5 teams a notch above the rest, USU has already visited 3 of them (SDSU, Boise State, and Nevada), and they do not make a return trip to Albuquerque. The Aggies are the 5th of those 5, and so while they dropped all 3 of those roadies, they have to feel as though they are still in the thick of the league race if they can just protect their home court. New Mexico on the other hand, has been tested both home and away, and is certainly used to playing tight games. Of all the good wins by the top teams in the MWC this year UNM has the best one, against SDSU, simply because it was on the road. They then proceeded to play back-to-back overtime thrillers, splitting games with Boise State and Nevada. There is nothing the Lobos are not prepared for heading into Logan.
Based on what we’ve seen from both teams a majority of the time this season, we should be in for an up-and-down free-flowing offensive exhibition of shot-making. The defensive units of the respective squads have been a tad inconsistent, and that might be difficult to fix with the number of scorers on the floor Wednesday night. Early on in the campaign Utah State was torching the nets from 3-point land, and they still do lead the nation in three-point %. But they’ve gotten outstanding contributions from players beyond just their two main snipers Steven Ashworth and Taylor Funk. 6th year senior Dan Akin played for Aggies boss Ryan Odom at UMBC, when they shocked the college basketball world by knocking off #1 seed Virginia in the NCAA Tournament. The pair reunited 5 years later and Akin is paying dividends on the return, averaging 12.5 and 7.5 per night as a 6th-man extraordinaire. USU doesn’t run many sets for the big man, he just does the dirty work, cleans up misses, has a nose for the ball, and is athletic enough to finish near the rim, shooting 64% from the floor. Max Shulga and Sean Bairstow will fire the occasional 3, but are looking more to operate in the mid-range or off the dribble.
The Aggies are coming off their second-best defensive effort of the season in terms of field-goal percentage against (34%), and a season low in terms of points allowed (53). Now to be fair, the Fresno State offense is one of the worst in the country statistically, but if nothing else, it will provide a bit of confidence heading into this matchup. When they were handled at SDSU last week, the Aztecs bombed away from deep, hitting 12 of 22 attempts. There are shooters to worry about from a % standpoint, but from a volume perspective the three-pointer is not a huge part of New Mexico’s offense. Less than 25% of their shot attempts come from deep, whereas over 40% of Utah States are. One area the Aggies will need to be sharp in is transition defense, as Lobo guard Jaelen House is lethal in the open floor.
UNM’s offense has been humming along the last few weeks, shooting very high percentages. One thing that has fallen off though since the non-con schedule is the incredible assist-to-turnover ratio. They were near the top in the nation in that ranking, but ever since the league opener vs. Colorado State those numbers have tailed off significantly. That is largely due to facing several top notch MWC defenses (Fresno State, Boise State, San Diego State, and others). What it means is that the Lobos are losing some of the crisp passing and sharing of the ball and relying more on individual talent to score buckets. Luckily they have the playmakers and scorers to do that most of the time, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing for New Mexico to return to their early season form in terms of ball movement. Also, while Utah State’s defense is not a sieve, they are not in the same category as those mentioned earlier, so there may be some room to maneuver for the star trio of House, Jamal Mashburn Jr., and Morris Udeze.
The last two outings have not been the best efforts defensively by the Lobos. While dealing with the constant movement and back-cutting of Air Force is no picnic, there were far too many open cutters heading towards the basket. That’s how the Falcons racked up 18 assists on only 26 made field goals. The Aggies may do it slightly differently, but the overall team defense for UNM will need to be better here. Ashworth is super quick and will have quite the duel out front with House. We touched on the effectiveness of Akin earlier. Fortunately for New Mexico, they have their own Swiss Army Knife do-it-all in Josiah Allick. You might see the 6’8” forward on the perimeter guarding Funk, or he may be in the paint covering Akin, and he’ll do everything in between. He made a play in Friday’s win that goes largely unnoticed, but is emblematic of his positive impact beyond numbers. Allick posted up on the block and received an entry pass from KJ Jenkins. Knowing a double team was coming, Allick jumped to catch the pass, and in one motion with one hand fired a pass back to an open Jenkins, who buried a 3. If Allick comes down with the pass or waits another second to kick it out to his teammate, he is more tightly covered and not able to get an open look. Again – winning, intangible plays. Look for Allick to do his best to slow down the red-hot Funk and Akin.
Cue the broken record for the 2023 Mountain West, but this is a really interesting game. If you look at Utah State’s results, they kind of are where they should be. There is no shame in their losses at SDSU, Boise State, or Nevada, and their 6 league wins are all against teams in the bottom half of the standings. Obviously, we’ll have a better read on the Aggies after Wednesday night, but it makes this game tough to figure out. We know what we’re going to get out of New Mexico, as they are talented and battle tested. The guards for both teams could have a field day (or night) scoring the ball, and it might very well be the team whose defense can string together a few stops that walks out of The Spectrum with the victory. At this point, the trust there lies more with the Lobos, and the call here is that a late bucket from Mashburn gives New Mexico a huge road win in a well-played high-scoring game.
Prediction: New Mexico 82 Utah State 80