<strong>LOGAN—</strong>The USU men’s basketball team has quietly cruised to 13 straight victories since dropping their second game of the season. The Aggies are 5-0 in conference play, and the 13 consecutive wins is tied with Kansas for the longest streak in the country.
Things are about to get a whole lot tougher for Utah State, however, as the Aggies kick off what may be their toughest road test of the season. Tonight, USU takes on the other Aggies in the WAC, New Mexico State, before traveling to Denver on Saturday. NMSU was picked to win the conference by the coaches, and despite some early struggles, the NewMags have rebounded and always give USU trouble.
“Every time you go into New Mexico State, which is our first challenge, you know you are going to face a very athletic team, a very good rebounding team, (and) their guards are extremely impressive,” USU head coach Stew Morrill said. “Their big guy inside that is 7-feet 5-inches (Sim Bhullar) creates lots of issues trying to figure out how to deal with him. He is not just big, he has a real nice touch and obviously he takes up a ton of room. They have an experienced veteran in (Tyrone) Watson who plays the three and the four. As usual they are a talented team.”
NMSU’s biggest threat, however, is Daniel Mullings. After splitting WAC Freshman of the Year honors with Louisiana Tech’s Raheem Appleby last season, Mullings has continued his stellar play as a sophomore. He leads the NewMags averaging nearly 15 points a game, while also averaging 5.4 rebounds. Mullings is also an excellent defender, and averages 2.2 steals per game.
Another interesting matchup for USU will be how they handle 6-foot 8-inch senior Bandja Sy who plays mostly on the wing. He can post up, shoot the 3, and has given the Aggies problems in the past.
“(Mullings) is even more impressive watching him this year. Last year he really had a hard time shooting the ball from 3, and now he is shooting a very high percentage,” Morrill said. “As I said earlier, their wings with Bandja Sy at 6-feet 8-inches is a load when he posts up. He is active on the break, driving it, and we will have guy who is 6-feet 2-inches (Spencer Butterfield) on him.”
As a team, the NewMags are averaging 68 points, 38 rebounds, and 12 assists per game, while shooting 45 percent from the floor, but only 29 percent from beyond the arc. Defensively, NMSU is holding opponents to 40 percent shooting and 64 points per game. They are also outrebounding opponents by more than six rebounds per game.
Thursday’s game may mark the beginning of the end for one of the better rivalries the Aggies have developed. With Utah State heading to the Mountain West Conference and NMSU uncertain of its future, it may be awhile before the two teams meet again. New Mexico State has often been a thorn in the side of USU on the Aggies road to the WAC title, and the NewMags dominated USU last season, winning both games easily.
“It’s been a really good rivalry, and for a long time before I ever got here,” Morrill said. “It’s a challenge every time we go to Las Cruces, in a lot of ways. Getting there is a challenge tomorrow. It’s about an 11-hour trip, it shouldn’t be but is. It’s the various things you deal with, with their crowd and so forth. Then they probably feel the same way when they come here. So it’s been a good rivalry. I don’t think either school will be sprinting to schedule each other for a few years. I think there will be a period where you kind of let it slide for a few years but at some point I think they will get back together.”
For the Aggies to win, they’re going to need preseason WAC Player of the Year Preston Medlin to continue his stellar play as of late. Since entering conference play, the junior is averaging 22 points per game, while shooting 47 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from beyond the arc. The Aggies will also need some help from their bench which is averaging only nine points per game in WAC play – including just five points per game during the past two contests.
“Yes, we need to them to step up and be a little more aggressive. We need some guys to step up and score. We need some guys to be rebounders. Yeah, it would help our team a lot if we could get a little more bench production,” Morrill said. “They are practicing very well, so that is the main thing they need to do, is to carry practice over to the games.”
The game will tipoff tonight at 7 p.m., and the play-by-play will be carried live locally on KVNU (610 AM), KLZX (95.9 FM), and online via 610kvnu.com. The game will also be televised by KMYU, which can be found on Comcast (Ch. 22), Dish Network (Ch. 12), DirecTV (Ch. 12), and on ESPN GamePlan (Comcast Ch. 422, Dish Network Ch. 456).
“They all know we have been living on the edge and we are going to have to elevate our game if we want to have a chance to be successful on this road trip,” Morrill said.