Coming off its first loss of the 2019-20 season, No. 25-ranked Utah State will finish a road swing through the Bay Area on Wednesday with its Mountain West Conference opener against San Jose State.
The Aggies (7-1), playing without center Neemias Queta, dropped an 81-73 decision at perennial West Coast Conference contender Saint Mary’s on Friday. Queta sustained a sprained knee playing for Portugal at this past summer’s FIBA U-20 European Championship.
“It was a really good basketball game, with 23 lead changes and 13 ties,” Utah State coach Craig Smith told KSL radio. “Back and forth, and neither team could extend from one another.”
The Saint Mary’s contest came on the heels of an impressive showing at the Jamaica Classic, where the Aggies beat an LSU squad ranked in the Top 25 to open the season. Whereas the Saint Mary’s loss was a wire-to-wire back-and-forth, the LSU win demonstrated Utah State’s ability to rally, storming back from down 19 points to win by two.
Sam Merrill was key in both games, with 24 points against LSU and 23 at Saint Mary’s. The 2018-19 MWC Player of the Year is averaging 17.4 points per game, 3.5 off of his average a season ago, but is adjusting without the 7-footer Queta to feed off the post.
Utah State has rallied as a unit, too, boasting an adjusted offensive efficiency ranking of No. 34 in the nation — right in line with last year’s finish of No. 39, per KenPom.com advanced metrics.
Where the Aggies see a noticeable difference without the outstanding shot-blocker Queta is on defense. Their adjusted defensive efficiency ranking has fallen from No. 52 to No. 69.
The absence of a premier post presence like Queta may be a welcome sight for San Jose State, which comes into its MWC opener off of a 29-point loss at UCLA.
The Spartans (3-5) struggled to contain the much larger Bruins inside, giving up 42 points in the paint and a 42-33 rebounding disparity.
Sunday’s loss marked the second in a row for San Jose State opposite a Pac-12 Conference opponent, and the third this season. The Spartans dropped an 83-48 decision to Oregon State on Wednesday in Las Vegas, and an 87-39 defeat at Arizona on Nov. 14.
The Oregon State and UCLA losses extended a current, three-game losing streak that began with a home loss to Portland State on Nov. 23.
During this brief skid, San Jose State coach Jean Prioleau has experimented with different lineups. At UCLA in particular, the Spartans leaned heavily on reserves, with three players — Omari Moore, Zach Chappell and Richard Washington — coming off the bench to score in double figures.
“We have several teams within one team,” Prioleau said following the Portland State loss. “We have multiple, versatile teams — guys coming off bench who can handle the ball, make a play, attack.”
–Field Level Media