Bumpy First Ride Through MW For Utah State, But Program BelongsPosted by Bennet Hayes on January 23rd, 2014
Life is not easy on the road in the Mountain West. The conference’s newest member has quickly learned the harsh reality of a league notorious for protecting its home courts, as Utah State dropped its fourth league road game in as many tries Wednesday night, falling 62-42 at UNLV. In a development typical of both conference and program, the Aggies have taken care of business in their two conference home games, but dwindling at-large hopes will only truly be resuscitated away from the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. However, NCAA Tournament or not, Stew Morrill’s program should fast find comfort in its new league. An entrenched coach, a passionate fan base, and a paradigmatic home court all make Utah State a natural fit for the Mountain West. But for now, the Aggies are learning that a step up in class doesn’t always make for the smoothest transition.
The last time Utah State switched leagues, it found the changeover a bit more manageable. Back in 2006, Stew Morrill led his charges from the Big West into the WAC, where they went 11-5 in their first regular season, then pushed Nevada to overtime in the WAC Tournament title game. No matter that the WAC brought a significantly enhanced reputation to the table: the Aggies belonged from the get-go. In this round of conference roulette, the MW brings a similar upgrade in class for Utah State. If geography still means anything when it comes to conference affiliation (the AAC may tell you that it doesn’t), the Aggies have positioned themselves in a western league that has to be second to only the Pac-12 in terms of desirability for the Logan, Utah, based school. It’s an elevation well-worth a season – or two, or three – of struggles on the court.
This Utah State campaign may never reach the point where we comprehensively define it as a “struggle,” but early returns have failed to impress. Wednesday’s loss at the Thomas & Mack Center would be no embarrassment if not for the 20-point margin of defeat, but earlier Aggies losses at Air Force and Nevada leave a bit more to be desired (although the 5-1 Wolfpack are improbably surging through MW play right now). Despite the paltry 42-point output – offensive ineptitude highlighted by a 2-of-17 mark from three (for a team that entered the game second nationally in three-point field goal percentage) — offense has rarely been the issue for Utah State. Defensively, the Aggies have been very pedestrian, and MW opponents have taken advantage. Stew Morrill’s teams have classically been elite offensive squads, but they certainly haven’t always come in a package with defense included. In the two seasons before this one, Utah State finished with national defensive efficiency ranks of #205 and #192, yet they were still proficient enough to scratch out 20 wins each season. Don’t expect that sort of math to add up in the Aggies’ new league, though. In each of the last seven MW seasons, at least three of the top four conference finishers have possessed national top-50 defensive efficiencies. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, but among their new neighbors, the Aggies should expect to find less toleration for a middling defense.
Despite their road struggles, we should probably allow a program known for its home prowess to take some cracks at the MW on their own turf. San Diego State and New Mexico will both visit Logan in the next week, a two-game homestand that has the potential to expose the MW to the house of horrors known as Smith Spectrum. Making life uncomfortable for visitors has long been a way of life for both the Mountain West and Utah State. That alignment of ethoi may not be fully apparent this week, or even this season, but it shouldn’t take anyone too long to figure out that Utah State and the Mountain West belong together.