A one-day preparation against an unknown technical staff.
Travel all day.
A rare bad night for his vaunted defense.
Utah state basketball team suffering four consecutive losses and 1-5 conference record, frustrated, hectic, savage.
Not a good recipe for San Diego State in Wednesday night’s Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, losing 75-57 to Utah State and fifth in the Mountain West 3-2 just six weeks before the conference tournament – a full three games behind the first place Boise State at 7-0.
“Just like football, just like football,” Utah state students chanted in the closing minutes, referring to the Aggies’ 46-13 victory over SDSU in the conference championship game last month.
It could have been worse. A year ago, the Aztecs left Logan at 3-3.
The sour experience sweetens their season. They held player-only meetings, rearranged the attack, and promised not to lose again. And not for 14 games, until I ran into a scorching Syracuse team in the NCAA tournament.
This looks worse on paper than it probably was, losing to a 1-5 team. Most of them were close and a few didn’t have a full roster. The four home defeats this season are by a combined 10 points.
“Thank you to our guys for sticking together and giving ourselves the chance to basically win every one of these games,” new Utah State coach Ryan Odom said earlier this week. “There are winning plays out there. … We have to focus on making winning moves, stick together and eventually it will change. Our team is pretty good.”
They were Wednesday night.
The Aztecs (11-5) hung around for 20 minutes, trailing 32-31, then played as if they were spending halftime outside, shivering in the 14-degree weather, cooling and stiffening. The Aggies opened the second half with a 13-2 run by simply beating the exhausted Aztecs on the field.
Twice the Aggies missed shots in the transition. Twice they grabbed the rebound and scored before the Aztecs could recover.
Matt Bradley had another scintillating performance, finishing with 19 points on 8 out of 12 shots, meaning he has made 18 out of 23 shots in his last two games. Chad Baker-Mazara came off the bench for his best play as an Aztec with 15 points.
But they got no help. Nathan Mensah, who typically struggles at heights, was in big trouble for most of the night and was limited to 19 minutes. Trey Pulliam had no points, no assists and four turnovers in 27 minutes after an encouraging performance against UNLV (and the Aztecs were minus-25 points with him on the floor). Lamont Butler had five turnovers.
Violation was not the main problem, however. Defense was.
SDSU’s fluctuating, swarming, suffocating defense schedules require energy, and the Aztecs clearly weren’t at their usual level playing for the third time in five days after a two-week COVID hiatus from games in which they put out just a few full-blown practices. .
Utah State shot 49.1 percent, the best against the Aztecs this season and only the third opponent to reach the top 40 percent against a defense going into the night and ranked third in the Kenpom metric. The 10 3-pointers were the second most surrendered this season, behind 11 by Michigan.
Or look at it this way: SDSU’s first four conference opponents were under 32 percent and 56 points.
It was 5-0 before the Utah state cheerleaders could sit down after forming a human tunnel for pregame introductions — a backdoor layup (after coaches drilled and drilled players about the event) and a corner 3 through Steven Ashworth (which coaches also warned about).
Corner 3 became a recurring theme in the first half. Ashworth hit three more 3s and had 12 points at the break, almost double his average, and finished with 17.
His fourth 3 gave the Aggies a 32-24 lead with 4:36 remaining at halftime. But the Aztecs finally got to grips with Utah’s unique five-out schedule and retired, leaving the Aggies scoreless for the rest of the half.
Shooting was no problem for the Aztecs…if they were holding the ball. They shot 59 percent, just below the best 62.1 percent of the season since the first half of Monday’s 80-55 win against UNLV, but had nine turnovers and trailed 32-31.
Then they stopped shooting. Problem.
They opened the second half and missed four of their first five. Utah State led off 5 of 8, but got the offensive rebound on two of the misses and scored. That made it 45-33, a mountain too high to climb in height on tired legs.
The Aztecs narrowed the margin to seven points and forced a Utah State timeout with 8:16 to go, but got no closer.