LOGAN — Two months and 13 games into his inaugural season at Utah State, Craig Smith has yet to experience his first Mountain West Conference game as head coach of the Aggies.
That will change rather abruptly Wednesday night in Reno, Nevada, when Smith and his young squad open league play on the road against one of the most formidable teams in not only the conference, but the entire nation.
“It’s great to play them right away,” Smith said of the sixth-ranked Nevada Wolf Pack. “Let’s measure up against the best of the best in league play. Our goal from day one is to get to the NCAA Tournament and to win the Mountain West championship. These guys are the defending champs.
“Being No. 6 in the country, it’ll be a great measuring stick to see where we’re at. We’re going to find out where we get exposed. We’re truly going to find where we’re weak and where our strengths are. You always find that when you go against really good teams. Why not go on the road right away and take on the defending champs and see what we can do?”
The first-place Wolf Pack (13-0) will host the Aggies (10-3) Wednesday at Lawlor Events Center. But while the preseason favorite is right where everyone thought they’d be heading into Mountain West action, Utah State, which was selected to finish ninth in the preseason media poll, currently sits in second place.
“I love what we did,” Smith said of his team’s performance in non-conference play.
Utah State’s three losses came at the hands of Arizona State in Las Vegas and on the road at BYU and No. 21 Houston. The Aggies' most noteworthy victory was an 80-63 defeat of perennial powerhouse Saint Mary’s on a neutral court in Las Vegas, while Smith has started off his tenure a perfect 6-0 at home in the Spectrum and his 10-3 overall record is the best-ever start by a first-year coach at Utah State.
Led by reigning Mountain West Player of the Year Caleb Martin, Nevada has been even more impressive. Eric Musselman’s senior-heavy Wolf Pack beat both Brigham Young and Arizona State by double digits, and clobbered Utah 86-71 last Saturday in Salt Lake City.
Fresno State (9-3) and San Diego State (8-4) were the only other Mountain West teams besides USU and Nevada to finish non-conference play with winning records, while New Mexico (6-6) and UNLV (6-6) both ended the preseason at .500.
The Aggies get first shot at ending the defending champs’ perfect run, but it obviously won’t be easy. Utah State has lost four in a row to Nevada, and the Aggies have dropped 15 straight contests to teams ranked in the AP Top 25. USU’s last victory over a ranked opponent came against the Wolf Pack during the 2006-07 season.
Martin is second in the Mountain West in scoring at 19.9 ppg after putting up a career-high 33 in the win over the Utes, while senior swingman Jordan Caroline is fifth at 18.7 ppg. Martin’s twin brother, Cody, leads the league in assists at 5.7 per game, and junior guard Jazz Johnson is the best in the Mountain West at both the free-throw line (.939) and beyond the 3-point line (.596).
“Nevada’s, obviously, very, very good,” Smith said. “There’s not much that they don’t possess in terms of personnel, scheme or anything like that. They’re a very veteran group. Six of their top eight, nine guys are seniors and they’ve been there, done that. They’ve played together. Going to the Sweet 16 last year and losing by one to Loyola Chicago.
“… They have size, athleticism and skill,” Smith added. “They play hard. There’s a reason they’re one of four undefeated teams, and, obviously, starting Mountain West Conference play is exciting. I’m sure both teams will be ready to roll.”
Heading into Wednesday’s showdown in Reno, Nevada is first in the conference in scoring offense (82.8 ppg), while the Aggies are second (81.4 ppg). Defensively, Utah State is first in scoring defense (64.8 ppg) and field goal percentage defense (.359), and the Pack is third (67.5 ppg) and second (.403) in those categories.1 comment on this story
Junior guard Sam Merrill is first for the Aggies and third in conference in scoring (19.7 ppg), and the Bountiful native is the only player in the Mountain West who ranks among the Top 10 in all three shooting percentages: second in free-throw percentage (.924), fourth in field goal percentage (.506) and ninth in 3-point field goal percentage (.408).
Utah State leads the conference in rebound margin at +11.6 rpg, thanks, in a large part, to the emergence of freshman center Neemias Queta (9.7 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.2 bpg) and the veteran play of senior forwards Quin Taylor (8.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Dwayne Brown Jr. (11.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg), who has given the Aggies a huge lift by coming off of the bench all season.