A massive tilt in the MWC sees Utah State head to San Diego State on Saturday; will the Aggies continue their roll on the road or can the Aztecs defend their home with a bounce back performance?
TV schedule: Saturday, February 3, 3:30 pm ET. FOX
Arena: Viejas Arena in San Diego, California
There’s no question that Utah State (19-2) has exceeded expectations this season. This is year one for Danny Sprinkle and that impressive record includes an overtime loss to Bradley, a tough outing at New Mexico, and a slew of victories. The Aggies have already triumphed over Colorado State and Boise State, two other competitors in this league, but this one would be far bigger.
Sprinkle came from Montana State and brought Great Osobor (19.1 ppg, 9.6 rpg), a junior forward who’s become the Aggies best player, dropping 31 against San Jose State earlier in the week. After two years as a reserve at Maryland, Ian Martinez (14.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg) has found a home back in Utah with the Aggies, leading a backcourt with scoring talent. Other names to watch include freshman Mason Falslev (11.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg), who’s a Utah native; as well as Darius Brown (11.1 ppg, 6.9 apg), a talented point guard who was the Big Sky’s best defender last season and also came to Logan with Sprinkle.
Utah State is currently #17 in the AP Top 25 but is only 29th in the most recent update to the KenPom rankings. While neither the offense nor defense really stands out (outside the Top 40 in efficiency in both), the Aggies have learned how to win games and their offense has played outstanding in recent weeks. Utah State has scored at least 80 points in six straight games and have shot the ball well through MWC play, minus their efforts in Albuquerque last month.
Across the court sits a familiar foe, as San Diego State (16-5) are trying their best to provide an encore after last season’s success. Those Aztecs marched to the national championship game, but these are just hoping to make their mark both in the postseason and in conference play. San Diego State has already dropped three games in league play, though they all came on the road against top teams in this league.
Any conversation about this Aztecs team starts with Jaedon LeDee (20.5 ppg, 8.6 rpg), a senior forward and All-American candidate who has rocketed into a starring role after great contributions last year. One of this season’s new faces is Reese Waters (11.9 ppg, 3.9 rpg), a USC transfer who’s fit nicely into a balanced backcourt. Among the other names to watch are Lamont Butler (9.5 ppg, 3.4 apg), a talented guard famous for last season’s Final Four buzzer beater, and Micah Parrish (10.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg), an important playmaker on both sides of the ball.
Though ranked earlier in the season, the Aztecs are unranked following those recent losses, but they still sit up at 24th in the KenPom rankings. San Diego State has been done for stout defense in recent years and that’s still the case, though 21st in defensive efficiency is a little lower than last season. There’s depth and talent for the Aztecs; they’re just glad to finally be playing a top MWC team at home.
These two programs have had some classic matchups in recent years, but we’re not thinking about Sam Merrill or Malachi Flynn or anybody else. This year has shown us that Sprinkle can turn around a program in an instant and Brian Dutcher can really build a team and coach defense, even if the results haven’t always been there. San Diego State is unbeaten at home while the Aggies recently showed they could win away from home when they upset Boise State in Idaho.
What matters Saturday is how effective the Aztecs defense will be against a Utah State offense that has been on a roll lately. It’s unlikely that San Diego State is going to shoot themselves to victory, needing to depend on that defense to get the job done. Even with Osobor’s amazing first season with the Aggies, there’ll be no better player on the court than LeDee; how he plays might determine this game’s winner.
Prediction: San Diego State 79, Utah State 77