Conference play starts Wednesday, but is USU ready?

Utah State guard Diogo Brito (24) defends Gonzaga guard Josh Perkins during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Spokane, Wash., Saturday, Nov. 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

LOGAN – Ready or not, conference play is here.

San Jose State will visit the Spectrum Wednesday night for Utah State’s first Mountain West basketball game of the season, but because of injuries and illnesses, head coach Tim Duryea hasn’t been able to keep a consistent lineup on the floor. His players, out of necessity, have been playing out of position, filling in for hampered teammates.

It’s a situation that has left the team feeling more uncomfortable than they normally would be, with a lack of experience in their roles.

“We are not the well-oiled machine we would like to be going into the conference,” he said. “Usually you’ll have an eight or nine-man rotation that you have settled in and your system is where you want it to be offensively and defensively.”

At least nine of the 13 players who have recorded playing time this season have been affected by an injury in some way. Five players have missed games completely, while at least four others have been limited. That doesn’t count Norbert Janicek, who had season-ending surgery before games began.

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“It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone in the country has dealt with what we have dealt with, with traveling and injuries and sickness and everything else we’ve dealt with,” Duryea said. “We’re a tired group mentally and physically.”

According to Duryea, Brock Miller is still a month away from a return and Klay Stall’s status is still to be determined. Daron Henson’s injury limited him last week’s game, Quinn Taylor is in a boot while not on the court and Sam Merrill is having issues with his shooting wrist.

“He has got the thing taped so tight he can almost not shoot the ball from 3-point range,” Duryea said. “It alters his release.”

This will be USU’s fifth year in the conference, and it hasn’t been an easy go. After winning multiple conference championships in both the WAC and the Big West, the Aggies have finished Mountain West play at 7-11 three times. The only exception to the sub-.500 conference mark was during 2014-15, Stew Morrill’s last year as head coach, when the team finished 11-7.

Now, USU may be entering Mountain West play as unprepared as it has been during the five-season stretch.

But maybe the situation isn’t as dire as it appears. Some players, like Alex Dargenton, are getting healthier and could make early-than-expected returns to the lineup. The free throw shooting, which is at least partially responsible for three losses, is statistically improving.

“When you lose three close games and you miss 11, 12 and 13 free throws in those games and you’re still in the game, but you end up losing … it’s hard for me to look back and think that we haven’t let a couple get away,” Duryea said. “Yet we are what we are. We’re 7-6.”

It will also help if sophomore guard Koby McEwen returning to his freshman-season form. He was averaging 14.9 points per game while shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc a season ago, but now, as a sophomore, McEwen has averaged 11.7 points per game while shooting 38.3 percent from the three. His rebounding average has also gone down from 5.1 to 3.0 per game. Duryea said he needs last season’s conference freshman of the year to play like an all-conference player.

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“The one word for him in the preseason is inconsistent,” Duryea said, “in the number of minutes he’s played and the guys that have played with him. He’s still a young player. He is just going into the conference play of his sophomore year. He is still getting better. He is still learning.”

If the out-of-conference records of USU’s Mountain West opponents prove to be reliable barometers, Wednesday’s game will be as easy as it gets for the Aggies. San Jose State comes to Logan with a conference-low 3-8 record. After that, it gets more difficult.

Either way, USU has to play with the hand its been dealt.

“That is frustrating, to feel like we don’t have our team where I thought we would have our team,” Duryea said. “We’ve got to move forward.”

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