Mountain West Basketball: Utah State vs. San Jose State–Preview, Odds, Prediction
Aggies, Spartans meet in San Jose
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What: Utah State Aggies (19-6, 8-4) @ San Jose State Spartans (14-10, 5-6)
When: Saturday, February 11th – 8:00 MT, 7:00 PT
Where: Provident Credit Union Event Center; San Jose, CA
How To Watch: CBS Sports Network
Odds: Utah State -5 Over/Under 141
After a missed opportunity Wednesday night, Utah State is in near desperation mode if they want to head back to the NCAA tournament. Their first task will not be an easy one, as they head to the Bay Area to take on San Jose State. The Spartans have postseason aspirations of their own, even if it’s only the NIT (gotta start somewhere, right?), which would be a phenomenal accomplishment for a program that has been as poor as SJSU for most of the 2000’s.
Back to the Aggies; the home loss to San Diego State just about put to bed any hopes for a regular season Mountain West Conference championship, as they trail the Aztecs by two full games and SDSU has the tiebreaker. A 3 or even 4 way tie is still a possibility, and then who knows how the tiebreakers work, but that’s a long way down the road. For now, USU needs to handle their own business, and that starts with something that has not been overly friendly to them this year – the road. The 4-3 away record doesn’t appear poor, but the wins have come against teams in spots 8, 9, and 10 in the MWC standings, and a non-league win in overtime against WCC bottom-feeder San Diego. The three losses meanwhile have all been by double-figures and only the Nevada game was close for the first 30 minutes. To be fair, it’s been extremely difficult to win on the road against any of the top teams. Additionally, while they are much improved, San Jose State is not near the caliber of the five heavyweights in this year’s Mountain West. But, until they prove it, it’s hard to put full trust in Utah State to get the job done away from The Spectrum.
Like most matchups at this time of year, these two have already played, and it was a great game in Logan in mid-January. The Spartans were in front most of the way, led by hot shooting, and only a late Steven Ashworth 3 and a drive and made free throw by Max Shulga enabled the Aggies to escape with a 75-74 victory. Both teams shot the ball well from deep in that one, and Utah State was super efficient from 2-point territory (over 60%) for the game. They did have difficulty with Spartans star guard Omari Moore, the type of long, athletic wing that has bothered them at times this year. While Moore only shot 7-19, that included an 0-4 from deep (not his strength), and his biggest asset was his playmaking. He was often able to get by his primary defender into the paint, draw help and find open teammates. He recorded 8 assists for the game, many of which went to Tibet Gorener, the sniper who recorded a career-high 20 points on 6-9 shooting from three-point land. One other big difference in that game was a whopping 17 offensive rebounds for SJSU. That led to 10 more shot attempts from the field, and enabled the Spartans to play from the front for 38 minutes.
San Jose State has alternated wins and losses the last 5 times out. That has also coincided with home and away games, and clearly this SJSU squad is more comfortable at home, despite not having the raucous home court atmospheres that many of their conference mates enjoy. As head coach Tim Miles continues to build this program from the bottom up, he will need to add depth and more players capable of being major contributors in this league. They are one of the few teams in the MWC that have avoided the dreaded injury bug, but they are still not very deep. In fact, in both the first game vs. Utah State, and Tuesday’s tight road loss to Fresno State, neither of the two starting guards, Moore and Alvaro Cardenas, left the floor, each playing 40 minutes. Against the methodical Bulldogs, who walk it up and play at a slow pace, you can probably get away with that. It’s a different story when trying to defend the Aggies. They will run in transition, though the Spartans are fairly good at shutting that down, but their scorers are difficult to defend and are constantly moving. That might result in some tired legs down the stretch for SJSU.
Utah State has been inconsistent defensively, but they did put a winning effort out there in the second half against San Diego State, holding the Aztecs to 19 points, and without a field goal for the last 6 minutes. That it came in a losing cause is more a credit to the opponent; the Aztecs showed up to play, and locked down the Aggies offensive threats for much of the game, as really only they can do. If USU can do that on the defensive end when guarding the talent of SDSU, they should be able to do it against the Spartans. The question is, will they? They did not defend well at all in their last road game, in Fort Collins against Colorado State. Coach Ryan Odom will need to choke off the head of the snake (Moore) and make other players beat him. Gorener for example, is a dead-eye shooter, but he is not great at creating his own shot. If you keep Moore from going wild, your chances of winning dramatically increase.
Situationally, there is a slight edge to the home team in this one for a couple reasons. First, they have an extra day off, having played nearby in Fresno on Tuesday. Utah State meanwhile, has to travel, and played on Wednesday. While the Aggies may go a bit deeper into the bench, that advantage could be nullified by the quicker turnaround/travel issue. There is also the matter of how their last game unfolded. There was a good deal of hype pregame about the showdown, as USU could have climbed into a first place tie with a win. The Spectrum was loud, and after a flat first half, the Aggies stormed back and had a chance to win, only to have a Shulga fadeaway in the final seconds fall short. It’s tough sometimes to pick yourself up off the mat when you take a loss in that manner. We’ll see how Odom gets his guys to respond. Expect a tighter, lower scoring game than the first matchup, as the coaching staffs will have plenty of film to break down and adjustments to make. One of those will be Utah State getting on the glass a bit more and limiting extra opportunities for the Spartans. That and some clutch baskets by Ashworth may prove to be the difference, and it says here the Aggies bounce back after the tough loss and win a nailbiter.
Prediction: Utah State 68 San Jose State 65