<strong>LOGAN—</strong> I knew that the road trip this past week for the USU men’s basketball team would be tough, and I’m not going to lie, I assumed after living on the edge for the past couple of games that the Aggies would fall to New Mexico State. It’s a road trip that has always caused Utah State problems.
After a good humbling at the hands of the NewMags, I expected another tough game in Denver, but I thought the Aggies would respond and prevail. That was of course before news broke that Preston Medlin and Kyisean Reed would be unavailable due to injuries suffered against NMSU. With Marvin Jean and Ben Clifford getting the start, my expectations of an Aggie win dropped to somewhere hovering around 5 percent.
Ultimately, I was impressed by the fight the Aggies showed against the Pioneers after rolling over in Las Cruces. Jean played particularly well in his first start, knocking down four shots from long range and leading the Aggies in scoring with 14 points.
Continued play like that from Jean, as well as others, will prove to be crucial for the remainder of the season as news broke Monday morning that Reed will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL.
The bad news continued, as it was also announced that Medlin, the preseason conference player of the year and USU’s leading scorer, would miss 6-8 weeks with a broken wrist. Add into that the early season defections of freshmen Riley Bradshaw and Quincy Bair and the Aggies are suddenly precariously thin.
Prior to the recent losing streak, the Aggies had been on a roll winning 13 consecutive games. Even with the two losses, USU still as an excellent record (14-3, 5-2) and is in a position mathematically to compete for its final WAC title. With such a thin lineup though, that will certainly be hard to achieve. Luckily for the Aggies, they get to adjust to their new lineup over the next couple of games at home.
As things sit right now, Marcel Davis is the starting point guard and that won’t change. Spencer Butterfield, who had been starting at the small forward spot after Danny Berger went down, slid over to the shooting guard in Medlin’s absence and that will continue. Jean started at small forward, with Ben Clifford the starting power forward. Junior Jarred Shaw remains the starter at center.
Let that sink in. . . Shaw is the only member of the current starting five that began the season in the starting lineup for the Aggies.
The injuries and defections leave the Aggies brutally thin at the one through three spots, with point guard TeNale Roland the only bench player that fits those areas. Of the Aggies other bench players, Jordan Stone and Matt Lopez are both set at center.
It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Stone or Lopez emerges as the starting center for Utah State, while Shaw slides to the power forward spot. This will allow the Aggies to maximize what’s left of their roster by bringing Clifford off the bench to spell Shaw, and possibly even Jean at the small forward. USU does have another guard/forward on its roster in Quinn Taylor, but he has been redshirting this season and is planning on leaving for an LDS mission following this year. It is unlikely the coaches pull Taylor’s redshirt barring absolute necessity.
The next seven games will be very important for the direction the rest of this season will take. The Aggies get UT Arlington (8-8, 3-4) and WAC leader Louisiana Tech (16-3, 7-0) this week, and then embark on their longest road trip of the season – three consecutive games – at Idaho, Seattle, and San Jose State. Following that long road trip, USU will get a rematch with the teams that just handed the Aggies a road sweep. Utah State must go 4-3 at worst during that stretch to stay near the top of the conference.
It’s been a rough two years, departures suck and injuries suck worse. The Aggies have had more than their fair share over the past couple of seasons. Optimistically, Medlin has a chance to be back by the beginning of March. If that is the case, he would return for the Aggies final three conference games (two at home) and the WAC tournament. Until then, a group of players who were expected to be bench contributors and next year’s stars most hold it together.