No. 15 Utah State, which has its highest ranking in the AP poll since the 1970-71 season, will face one of the toughest tests of its season when it plays at hot-shooting Saint Mary’s on Friday night in Moraga, Calif.
Both non-Power 5 conference schools started the season in the rankings, although the Gaels (6-1) fell out after an early loss to Winthrop after being ranked No. 20. Each team views this game as a potential quality win that could be a factor when it comes to the NCAA Tournament selections and seedings.
“They are a very historic team, have an excellent program and are very well coached and disciplined,” Aggies head coach Craig Smith said in the Logan (Utah) Herald Journal, talking about the Gaels. “… It will be a heck of a test to go on the road at their place. They are playing good basketball and have really talented players.”
Utah State of the Mountain West beat Saint Mary’s of the West Coast Conference 80-63 last season in Las Vegas.
“There’s no doubt the way things went last year that they (Gaels) will be hungry and motivated,” Smith said. “But so are we. You don’t have opportunities rolling in at you every week to play teams that are potentially Quad 1 games. They have a hard time scheduling and we have a hard time scheduling, so it makes sense.”
Utah State (7-0) is coming off two victories at the Jamaica Classic, including an 80-78 win over LSU. The Aggies followed up by knocking off North Texas 68-59 on Sunday.
Alphonso Anderson led the Aggies with 19 points and five rebounds. Diogo Brito added 15 points, and Justin Bean finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds.
Utah State leading scorer Sam Merrill (16.6 points per game) will be looking to get back on track after finishing with five points on 0-of-6 shooting from the field, snapping his 29-game streak of scoring in double figures. He left the game with an ankle injury but returned to the court, although Smith said this week that Merrill’s full health for Friday night remained a bit of a question.
The Gaels are again knocking on the door of the Top 25 after ripping off six consecutive wins behind a barrage of 3-point shooting. They are hitting 45.9 percent from behind the arc (68 of 148), with Jordan Ford making 19 of 40 from deep, while Tanner Krebs is 16 of 30.
Ford, a senior, is a crafty scorer who is averaging 20.7 points per game, right at last season’s average of 21.1. He scored 26 in a season-opening overtime triumph over Wisconsin.
The Gaels are coming off a 107-56 win over Sonoma State as redshirt junior Elijah Thomas set a career-best with 16 points. They had a decisive 27-0 run in the second half and had a 33-17 rebounding edge.
“I think the biggest thing was that we turned up the pressure and obviously it worked out; we jumped on them and never looked back,” Thomas said.
Saint Mary’s power forward Malik Fitts is a tough matchup for most opponents, as he works the glass on defense (6.1 rebounds per game) and is another floor-stretcher on offense, having made 37 percent of his 3-point attempts (10 of 27). He is averaging 13.1 points per game.
–Field Level Media