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Looking for a first: Utah State ready for big opportunity at San Diego State

Utah State guard Sean Bairstow (2) brings the ball up court against Colorado State during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, in Fort Collins, Colo. Colorado State beat Utah State 77-72.

Utah State guard Sean Bairstow (2) brings the ball up court against Colorado State during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, in Fort Collins, Colo. Colorado State beat Utah State 77-72. (Jack Dempsey, Associated Press)


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LOGAN — Utah State and San Diego State have cultivated a bit of a rivalry in recent seasons.

As the two teams met in the Mountain West Tournament championship game from 2018-20, there have been several big moments to point back to. Loyal Aztecs from Carlsbad to El Cajon still wince at the thought of Sam Merrill's jump shot. Nathan's Mensah's never-ending college career continues to befuddle Aggies fans across the Cache Valley.

The rivalry has edged in favor of the Aggies of late, who are 6-5 against the Southern California foes since the 2018-19 season. But when the two sides meet in San Diego, there hasn't been any sunshine for Utah State. Since joining the Mountain West in 2013, the Aggies are 0-8 inside the intimidating confines of Viejas Arena, with just one loss coming by less than double digits.

In the latest installment of the matchup, a Wednesday night matchup (9 p.m. MST, CBS Sports Network), the 15-4 Aggies will try for a ninth time against the Aztecs (15-4) to get a road win in San Diego. A win would do wonders for Utah State's season and give it a share of first place in the Mountain West standings — and its first Quad 1 win of the season.

Standing between coach Ryan Odom's squad and a signature win, though, is an Aztecs squad that in many ways is the Aggies' antithesis.

Utah State is the most offensive-dependent team in the conference, and the Aztecs are the third most defensive-dependent, according to KenPom.com. The Aggies are 19th in adjusted offensive efficiency, and San Diego State is 26th in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Aggies are a skilled shooting team that loves to speed things up, and the Aztecs are a physical, defensive squad that loves to slow it down.

"They've got bigger bodies, and so they're athletic," Odom said Tuesday morning. "They're very physical on the glass; they've got some versatile lineups that they can put out there that can challenge you from a size perspective and physicality perspective. … We expect a full challenge, and we're excited about the opportunity."

It's not just the defense for the Aggies to worry about, though. San Diego State's three starting guards — Matt Bradley, Seattle transfer Darrion Trammell and Lamont Butler — all average double digits. The trio ranked 49th in adjusted offensive efficiency and are putting up big numbers when needed, including a combined effort of 88 points to beat Ohio State and 80 points to beat Wyoming.

"Trammell is a dynamic guard — can really score," Odom said. "Bradley is a tremendous player, a really challenging player to guard. … It's certainly one of, if not, the best (backcourts in the conference)."

The matchup is certainly a test for the Aggies, who are 7-point underdogs and have yet to show they can defeat quality teams on the road. The Aggies were outrebounded, out-shot and out-classed against another physical defense, Boise State, in an 82-59 loss on Jan. 7. On Jan. 13 against Nevada, Utah State led in 30 minutes of action until the Wolfpack went on a 19-0 run late to turn the game around.

What can Utah State do differently against the Aztecs? Perhaps emulate New Mexico, who won 76-67 in Viejas Arena two weeks ago.

"(New Mexico) controlled the game on both sides of the ball for the majority of the game," Odom said. "They were able to get some quality looks and some easy baskets, and they were able to get enough stops to win the game."

For the Aggies, controlling the game means keeping the tempo up and securing defensive rebounds, which will help open offensive opportunities in transition.

Steven Ashworth leads the team with 15.7 points per game, and his 3-point shooting and passing abilities are best in the open court. Utah State ranks first nationally in 3-point percentage (41.5%) and finds its rhythm best when it's forcing defensive stops and turnovers, and not consistently in a halfcourt offense.

Unlikely to overpower the Aztecs in the paint, Utah State has to mitigate second-chance opportunities. Center Trevin Dorius needs to avoid foul trouble and remain in the game. Forwards Dan Akin and Taylor Funk need to be more assertive on the glass.

A near sell-out crowd will greet the Aggies Wednesday evening as they look to do something they've never done in Mountain West play. Doing so would, arguably, be the biggest win of Odom's tenure, as it would insert the Aggies at the top of the standing and perhaps on the right side of the NCAA Tournament "at-large" conversation as the final month of the regular season nears.

But it will require a near-perfect effort.

"Our guys will have to be on top of their game to have a chance to win," Odom said.

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