<strong>LAS VEGAS—</strong> The Utah State men’s basketball team will conclude a full day of WAC tournament action Thursday night when the fifth seeded Aggies face off against the fourth seeded Mavericks of UT Arlington. Both teams finished the regular season with identical 11-7 marks in the WAC, but UTA received the fourth seed by virtue of sweeping USU in conference play.
This is Utah State’s eighth and final season in the Western Athletic Conference, and the first time they have been lower than a fourth seed entering the tournament. It is the second time in as many years, however, that the Aggies will play in the final quarterfinal of the day as they were the fourth seed last year, losing 72-70 to Louisiana Tech.
Last season’s early exit was the first time USU has not advanced past the quarterfinals since joining the WAC. In fact, the Aggies have played in the conference tournament championship game in 10 of the past 12 seasons, something they’re hoping to do again this year.
“I think the wins (last week) give us a lot of momentum going into the WAC Tournament,” junior center Jarred Shaw said. “We’ve kind of got a chip on our shoulder. People counted us out and said we were done, but we still feel like we have something to prove. We’ll translate that to the court and we’ll be ready to play in Las Vegas.”
Despite losing both regular season games against the Mavericks, Utah State is feeling confident about facing UT Arlington a third time. Both games against UTA did come after the Aggies had suffered injuries and were not clicking on all cylinders. The Mavericks also come into the tournament having lost their last two games.
“I think their players mold together well as a team, but I think we’re a lot better team now too,” USU junior guard Spencer Butterfield said. “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.”
The Mavericks are a very balanced team across the board – only one player averages in double figures, but five others average between 8.3 and 6.8 points per game – and are led by senior Kevin Butler who was a third team all-WAC selection. Though UTA only makes about 40 percent of its shots and scores an average of 63 points per game, the Mavericks hang their hat on a stifling, disruptive defense – something the Aggies have struggled with this season.
“They make it hard for you, because they are so good defensively. They help each other, they pressure the heck out of the ball, they press you, they’ve even started playing a little bit of 2-3 zone,” USU head coach Stew Morrill said. “The sum of their parts is impressive. You just take each of their little parts and you might look at them and say, ‘OK, they don’t have as much talent as some teams,’ but the sum of all their parts is very good.”
In the two losses to the Mavericks, turnovers and poor shooting has plagued Utah State as the Aggies have averaged 16.5 turnovers in the two games, while making only 33.7 percent of their shots. USU knows it must play better if it hopes to pull off the upset. The Mavericks lead the WAC and are 11th in the NCAA in field goal percentage defense.
“As you watch the Arlington film, we can play a lot better. I think Arlington – I’m really impressed with how together they are and how hard they play, how great they are defensively. With that being said, we didn’t do what we needed to do to have a chance to win (in the regular season games),” Morrill said. “We’re going to have to play well. We can’t play average and win the game. We’re going to have to play well to have a chance to win.”
Along with Butler, who averages 10.7 points per game, the Mavericks receive solid contributions from forwards Jordan Reves, Karol Gruszecki, Brandon Edwards, and Greg Gainey, among others. UTA point guard Cameron Catlett has also been good against the Aggies, and caused problems in transition, as well as with his ability to create plays by driving into the defense and kicking the ball to open shooters.
“The way they’ve done it mostly is pushing the ball. They were not a team that was running the ball on makes and misses, and they are now and they’re flying,” Morrill said. “You better get matched up, you better get back, you better know what defense you’re in or they’re going to hurt you.”
Thursday’s game will tipoff at 8:30 p.m. in Las Vegas and 9:30 p.m. local time. Though the game will not be televised, it can be heard live on KVNU (610 AM, 102.1 FM) and KLZX (95.9 FM) with the “Voice of the Aggies” Al Lewis on the play-by-play. The audio will also be broadcast live online at 610kvnu.com.