Team Profile: 2006 BracketBuster Preview: Northwestern State at Utah State
For the Utah State Aggies, it was a haven, a sanctuary, a safe harbor. The walls of the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum were a protective shield. That’s right–were, until Saturday night.
For the first time this season, Utah State suffered a loss in its home arena, making the rest of its games in Logan, Utah, anything but automatic victories.
It wasn’t exactly the kind of effort the Aggies had hoped for leading into their BracketBusters game against the Northwestern State Demons. The game will be nationally televised at 10:05 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPNU.
Utah State was rolling this season before Saturday’s loss to a 10-12 New Mexico State team – its second of the year to the middle-of-the-road Western Athletic Conference squad. Utah State is not only looking to win the WAC, but the Aggies are trying to lock up an at-large bid should they not win the conference tournament. Currently, Utah State (16-6, 7-4 WAC) sits a game back of conference leaders Nevada and Louisiana Tech.
After the devastating home loss to NMSU, the at-large bid is in doubt, but Utah State knows registering a meaningful win against the Demons (17-6, 10-1 Southland) can only help. And the Aggies, who sit at No. 41 in the RPI, know they have the tools to be a dangerous team in the NCAA Tournament. The challenge is getting there.
As of Feb. 10, Utah State ranked second in the nation in both field goal shooting and 3-point shooting. The Aggies shoot at a 50.8 percent clip, second to only the Florida Gators. They also make 42.9 percent
of their triples, trailing just the Indiana Hoosiers. Utah State also ranks fifth in the nation in assists per game (18.4), is 14th in committing personal fouls per game (15.4) and 30th in scoring margin,
outscoring the opposition by 10.2 points per game.
Some figured changing leagues (from the Big West to the WAC) would hamper Utah State’s success this season. But, after finishing 24-8 last year, the Aggies look to be on the same pace. Point guard David
Pak is poised handling the offense (5 apg) and will rise up and hit a crunch-time jumper if necessary. Shooting guard and 2005 Big West Freshman of the Year Jaycee Carroll is averaging a team-high 17.4 points per game while forward Nate Harris chips in 17.3 points and seven boards per game. Add in center Matheus Cass (9.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg), forward Durrall Peterson (7.9 ppg) and forward Chaz Spicer (7 ppg) and the Aggies have six players that score more than seven points per contest.
Then there’s head coach Stew Morrill, who recorded his 400th career coaching victory on Jan. 30. With his experience on the sidelines, the Aggies clearly have the tools to defeat anyone.
Don’t tell that to Northwestern State. The Demons have been rolling through the Southland Conference this season, after a nonconference slate which saw them upset Mississippi State, Oregon State, and Oklahoma State, all away from home, which is Natchitoches, Louisiana.
Sadly for the Demons, a No. 68 RPI ranking while playing in one of the lesser-respected mid-major conferences will not garner an at-large bid. They face the same difficult task felt by so many smaller league champs: win the conference tournament, or head to the NIT.
Senior forward Clifton Lee is the only player averaging double figures for the balanced Demons, dropping in 13.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. Senior guard Jermaine Wallace adds 9.8 points per game while junior guard Luke Rogers chips in 9.1 points per game. Senior point guard Tyronn Mitchell doesn’t make scoring an emphasis, dropping in only 7.5 points per contest, but he does dish out a team-leading five assists per game.
The Demons will have to play a near-perfect game to knock off Utah State, especially in Logan. They’ve certainly proven they have the chops to win in hostile environments already this year. But with so much riding on this game for Utah State, look for the Aggies to protect their haven.
Prediction: Utah State 84, Northwestern State 65