LAS VEGAS — Unlike past years, Utah State won’t be one of the teams everyone is trying to knock off at the Western Athletic Conference Tournament.
This time, the injury-riddled Aggies (21-9) are the ones trying to pull some upsets and work their way into the NCAA Tournament. They open WAC Tournament play tonight against UT Arlington (17-12) in a quarterfinal game at the Orleans Arena at 9:30 p.m. MDT.
The Aggies are a No. 5 seed for the first time since 1992, when they lost to Pacific in the opening round of the Big West Conference tournament. If they win, they’ll likely face 26-5 Louisiana Tech, which was ranked in the Top 25 before losing its final two regular-season games last week.
“We’re looking forward to the tournament — I think our guys will be excited to play,’’ said USU coach Stew Morrill. “We’ve got to play a lot better than we did the last time we played UT Arlington. We can’t play average and win this game. We have to play well to have a chance to win.”
The Mavericks own two victories over the Aggies this year, a 74-68 win in Logan in late January and a 61-46 victory in Texas earlier this month.
UT Arlington has a balanced attack with just one player averaging in double figures — 6-foot-5 senior Kevin Butler (10.7 ppg). Center Jordan Reves leads the team in rebounding (8.6 rpg) and blocked shots (2.3) while scoring 8.3 ppg.
Karol Gruszecki, a senior forward from Poland, averages 8.0 ppg, and the other starters are guards Shaquille White-Miller (5.1 ppg) and Cameron Catlett (5.6 ppg).
Forward Brandon Edwards, who has started most games this year, is the top reserve (7.8 ppg, 7.7 rpg).
UTA coach Scott Cross has used eight different starting lineups this year, and nine different players have started a game this year.
The Mavericks, who came on strong in league play after a slow start, are known as one of the top defensive teams in the league, ranking 11th nationally and first in the WAC in field-goal percentage defense (38.2 percent). They are also second in the WAC and 57th in the NCAA in scoring defense at 61.8 points per game.
The Aggies’ biggest challenge this year has been trying to field a healthy lineup. Junior forward Danny Berger hasn’t played since collapsing during practice with a heart issue. The Aggies are also playing without leading scorer Preston Medlin, who has been out with a broken wrist since mid-January, and senior forward Kyisean Reed, who tore his ACL in the same game Medlin hurt his wrist.
Spencer Butterfield, who missed the game against the Mavericks this month with a hip injury, is listed as “day-to-day,’’ but played in the Aggies’ two games last week.
Center Jarred Shaw leads the Aggies with a 14.0 scoring average, while Butterfield averages 12.0 and leads the WAC in free-throw percentage at 82.4 percent. Other Aggie starters are guard Marcel Davis (7.2 ppg) and forwards Ben Clifford (5.1 ppg) and Marvin Jean (4.9 ppg).
In other games in the WAC Tournament Thursday, New Mexico State (3) plays Idaho (6) at 1:30 p.m., Denver (2) meets Texas State (7) at 3:30 p.m., and league champion Louisiana Tech plays UTSA (9) at 7 p.m.
If the Aggies win Thursday, they will play Friday at 9:30 p.m. against the winner of the Louisiana Tech-UTSA game.