LOGAN — The Utah State basketball team will ring in the New Year with a new era of basketball. The Aggies (10-2) will play their first Mountain West Conference basketball game on Wednesday night at Air Force (6-5).
“Ready or not, you never know,” head coach Stew Morrill said when asked if the Aggies were ready for the Mountain West Conference. “You start on the road and that’s always a challenge.”
The Falcons sit near the bottom of the Mountain West standings in non-conference play but still pose a tough challenge with a difficult to prepare for Princeton style offense. The veteran players for USU know the system well, having played Denver twice last year. The Pioneers use a similar playbook, but the Aggies lost both matchups with DU last season.
“You want to start on a good note, but they know we aren’t just going to waltz in, play bad and get a win,” Morrill said. “The nature of the Mountain West Conference is that you aren’t going to play bad and win.”
Many have said that the Mountain West has taken a step back from last year when the conference sent five teams to the NCAA Tournament and finished the year rated No. 1 in RPI. Only San Diego State is currently ranked in the Top 25, and preseason favorites New Mexico and UNLV have had a few struggles to start the season. Even with a dip in quality, Morrill believes the conference is one of the strongest in the nation and will test USU every night.
“The conference is a beast in terms of all the quality teams,” Morrill said. “I laugh when I hear ‘it’s not quite what it was last year.’ Well no, it’s not first or second in the country, but it’s still in the top eight or nine out of 31 conferences. It’s a heck of a league. We are looking forward to it.”
Utah State will likely continue to be without Jarred Shaw, who was suspended indefinitely from the team last month. Shaw was charged with distribution of a controlled substance on Monday, and Morrill has previously stated that Shaw and the team will need to let the legal process run its course before making any further decision.
Here's a quick look at how teams in the league (in projected order of finish from MWC media day in October) have fared, thus far:
Kraig Williams is a 2010 Utah State University graduate and regular Deseret News sports blogger. He can be followed on Twitter @DesNewsKraig.
New head coach Craig Neal has the Lobos right in the mix at the top of the Mountain West again. Best win: Marquette, 75-68; Worst loss: New Mexico State, 67-61 Scoring leader: Senior forward Cameron Bairstow, 20.1 ppg Rebounding leader: Junior center Alex Kirk, 9.5 rbp; Assists leader: Senior guard Kendall Williams, 5.2 apg;
After some early issues, the Rebels appear to have righted the ship and are riding a six-game winning streak into conference play. Best win: Mississippi State, 82-66; Worst loss: Arizona State, 86-80; Scoring leader: Junior forward Roscoe Smith, 13.1 ppg; Rebounding leader: Junior forward Roscoe Smith, 13.2 rpg; Assists leader: Junior guard Bryce Dejean-Jones, 3.4 apg;
Under head coach Leon Rice, the Broncos average 82.5 points per game, tops in the conference. Best win: Utah, 69-67; Worst loss: Saint Mary’s, 82-74; Scoring leader: Junior guard/forward Anthony Drmic, 19.5 ppg; Rebounding leader: Senior forward Ryan Watkins, 8.6 rpg; Assists leader: Junior guard Derrick Marks, 2.8 apg;
Head coach Steve Fisher is looking to guide the Aztecs to the NCAA Tournament for the fifth straight year. Best win: Creighton 86-60; Worst loss: No. 1 Arizona 69-60; Scoring leader: Senior guard Xavier Thames, 15.6 ppg; Rebounding leader: Senior forward Josh Davis, 10.7 rpg; Assists leader: Senior guard Xavier Thames, 2.6 apg;
The Aggies have won five straight heading into their first-ever Mountain West game but are without leading scorer Jarred Shaw, who has been suspended indefinitely. Best win: at UC-Santa Barbara, 71-64; Worst loss: Pacific, 78-68; Scoring leader: Senior forward/center Jarred Shaw, 16.1 ppg; Rebounding leader: Sophomore forward Kyle Davis, 8.4 rpg; Assists leader: Senior guard Preston Medlin, 3.8 apg;
The Rams were expected to take a step back from last year’s NCAA Tournament appearance, but head coach Larry Eustachy has them right in the thick of it. Best win: New Mexico State, 85-83; Worst loss: Denver, 80-70; Scoring leader: Junior forward J.J. Avila, 19.5 ppg; Rebounding leader: Junior guard Daniel Bejarano, 9.6 rbp; Assists leader: Junior forward J.J. Avila, 3.8 apg;
The Cowboys sport the second-best defense in the conference, allowing just 61.7 points per contest. Best win: Northern Colorado, 72-59; Worst loss: Denver, 64-61; Scoring leader: Junior forward Larry Nance Jr., 16.9 ppg; Rebounding leader: Junior forward Larry Nance Jr., 9.9 ppg; Assists leader: Junior guard Riley Grabau, 2.6 apg;
Head coach Rodney Terry already has the Bulldogs close to their 2012-13 win total of 11. Best win: UC Irvine, 98-97; Worst loss: Pacific, 86-77; Scoring leader: Sophomore guard Marvelle Harris, 16.0 ppg; Rebounding leader: Senior guard Tyler Johnson, 6.8 rpg; Assists leader: Sophomore guard Cezar Guerrero 4.3 apg;
The Wolfpack are the only Mountain West team entering conference play with a losing record. Best win: Iona, 80-72; Worst loss: Cal State Bakersfield, 74-66; Scoring leader: Senior guard Deonte Burton, 22.5 ppg; Rebounding leader: Senior guard Jerry Evans Jr., 6.2 rpg; Assists leader: Senior guard Deonte Burton, 3.8 ppg;
The Falcons are over .500 entering conference play, but that’s mostly due to a very light non-conference schedule. Air Force has no wins over teams with winning records. Best win: South Dakota, 94-86; Worst loss: Jackson State, 84-82; Scoring leader: Sophomore guard Tre’ Coggins, 16.6 ppg; Rebounding leader: Junior forward Justin Hammonds, 6.0 rpg; Assists leader: Junior guard Max Yon, 3.4 apg;
First-year head coach Dave Wojclk is looking to turn around this long-struggling basketball program in its first year in the Mountain West Conference. Best win: Pepperdine, 83-77; Worst loss: James Madison, 79-66; Scoring leader: Freshman guard Rashad Muhammad, 17.3 ppg; Rebounding leader: Senior forward Chris Cunningham, 7.1 rbp; Assists leader: Junior guard D.J. Brown, 3.4 apg.