<strong>LOGAN—</strong> Can the third time be the charm for the Utah State University men’s basketball team?
Riding the momentum of a mini two-game winning streak, the fifth seeded Aggies head to Las Vegas Wednesday morning in preparation for their quarterfinal game of the Western Athletic Conference tournament. USU will face fourth seeded UT Arlington at 9:30 p.m. Mountain Time on Thursday night, and look to avenge two regular season losses to the Mavericks.
“I think their players mold together well as a team, but I think we’re a lot better team now too. We really never showed up when we played them at Arlington, and it was tough watching from the bench,” said junior guard Spencer Butterfield who missed that March 2 game due to injury. “I think we’ll be ready for them come Thursday. I think we’re definitely due to upset them. That might be a little bit biased of an opinion, but that’s how I’m feeling about it.”
One thing the Aggies have going for them, is that the Mavericks haven’t really faced USU at full strength this season. The first matchup of the year took place on Jan. 24, just two games after the Aggies lost two star starters in Preston Medlin and Kyisean Reed. With players playing out of position and learning new ones, the Aggies put up a good fight in that game before faltering down the stretch in a <a href=”http://www.cachevalleydaily.com/sports/article_99ceeede-66c0-11e2-a398-001a4bcf6878.html” target=”_blank”>74-68 loss</a>.
The game in Arlington was much more lopsided, with the Mavericks winning easily, <a href=”http://www.cachevalleydaily.com/sports/usu/article_5f32522a-83c1-11e2-b2b0-001a4bcf6878.html” target=”_blank”>61-46</a>. That game, however, came after a blowout loss to nationally ranked Louisiana Tech just two nights earlier, in which Butterfield aggravated a hip injury and was carried off the court and eventually taken to the hospital. The smooth-shooting junior returned for USU’s final two regular season games, and is expected to be able to play in the WAC tournament.
“I think there’s some validity to that,” USU head coach Stew Morrill said when asked whether or not the team was confident, knowing the Mavericks had not received the Aggies best shot.
“You’ve still got to go play and play well, but I think it might add a little bit of confidence to us to have Spencer in that game – assuming he gets through the week okay and is able to go. That’s almost a day-to-day concern. You kind of breathe a sigh of relief each day when practice is over and he is upright. We’ll see if we can get him through a few practices.”
If the Aggies hope to pull off the upset and avoid losing in the conference quarterfinals for just the second time in the past 13 seasons (last year’s 72-70 loss to Louisiana Tech was the first), cutting down on turnovers and getting Jarred Shaw involved are both things USU most do. In the two regular season games against UT Arlington, Utah State averaged 16.5 turnovers per game and shot an average of 33 percent from the floor.
The junior center Shaw has really struggled in his two games against UTA with games of 3-of-11 shooting and 3-of-13 shooting, for a total shooting percentage of 25 percent. He is also only averaging 5.5 rebounds in those two games.
“I have to play a lot better. I’ve been watching a lot of film from those two games, trying to see what I can do differently to affect the game, whether that’s scoring or rebounding or defense, whatever it takes,” Shaw said. “I’m just watching film and doing my scout report and I’ll be ready to play. I hope that I can turn things around and have a great game against those guys.”
While the Aggies know they haven’t given the Mavericks their best shot, Morrill knows UT Arlington will still have plenty of confidence from sweeping USU during the regular season – something not often done during Morrill’s tenure. The coach said he doesn’t put much stock in the notion that it’s hard to beat the same team three times in one season.
“I don’t believe in that. If you’ve beat them twice, you might just be better than them. So the third time, why should that be so hard? There’s a lot of those sayings that are a lot of fun to talk about, but I’m not sure how much validity they have,” Morrill said. “In this case, I hope that one’s more right than I believe. The shoe has been on the other foot many times, but we’ve always tried to take the positive approach. ‘Why not, why can’t we beat them three times, we beat them twice.’ I’m sure that’s what they’re saying.”
Regardless of whether or not Thursday’s game goes the Aggies way, with Butterfield back in the lineup it should be a close contest between two teams that finished the regular season with identical 11-7 WAC records.