We’re getting better on ball screens. Those kind of things are what we’ve tried to work on. Whether it will show that we’ve made great progress is hard to say, but all you can do day by day is work on it. —Stew Morrill, Utah State head coach
LOGAN — A week after being handed its first loss of the season by BYU, Utah State's basketball team takes the floor again on Saturday night. The Aggies (5-1) face former conference foe Pacific (6-1) to open up a six-game homestand that will stretch across the entire month of December.
Going back to their days in the Big West Conference, the Aggies and Tigers seemed to fight annually for the league title before USU left in 2005.
A lot has changed since then, with the Aggies moving to the WAC and then the Mountain West, while Pacific has dealt with changes of its own. The Tigers begin their first year in the West Coast Conference this season and have a new head coach in Ron Verlin, who takes over for Bob Thomason, who retired last season after 25 years as the head coach at Pacific.
Verlin spent 19 years as an assistant under Thomason, which means that while things have changed, the system the Tigers run is pretty similar to what Utah State head coach Stew Morrill and the Aggies faced in the past.
“The system is similar, which you would expect. But the nature of this business and the difference in head coaches, I’m sure a lot has changed in the terms and the way they approach it every day and all of that,” Morrill said. “There are some new things in the system, but there are a lot of similar things too.”
If the name Verlin sounds familiar, it is probably because Ron's twin brother Don was an assistant coach under Morrill for years before becoming a frequent opponent of the Aggies as the head coach of Idaho.
“I know Don really well, so I feel like I know Ron pretty well,” Morrill said. “Through the years all the times we’ve played them and with Don working for me for 15 years, it led to knowing his twin pretty well. They’re similar in that they’re upbeat, positive guys who are very likable.”
Utah State has been working hard on its defense after getting shredded by BYU in the second half of last weekend's game at EnergySolutions Arena. Pacific is a dangerous offensive squad that has seven returning players with starting experience from last year’s NCAA tournament team. The Tigers have already notched wins over Mountain West schools Nevada and Fresno State.
“We’ve been trying to work on our deficiencies — guarding the ball and our transition defense, which of course was not good against BYU, but a lot of people’s aren’t,” Morrill said. “We’re getting better on ball screens. Those kind of things are what we’ve tried to work on. Whether it will show that we’ve made great progress is hard to say, but all you can do day by day is work on it.”
USU has moved Saturday's tip time up to 5 p.m. to accommodate fans wanting to watch the Aggie football team take on Fresno State in the Mountain West title game. The university will show the football game on the big screen in the Spectrum immediately following the basketball game. Admission to the watch party is free.
Kraig Williams is a 2010 Utah State University graduate and regular Deseret News sports blogger. He can be followed on Twitter @DesNewsKraig.