LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Having played 11 of their first 15 games at home, the Aggies hit the road this week.
In fact, the Utah State men’s basketball team plays five of its next seven games away from the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, starting Thursday night at New Mexico State. In a battle of the Western Athletic Conference Aggies, tipoff is set for 7 o’clock at the Pan American Center.
“It is time for us to get on the road and see what we can do,” USU head coach Stew Morrill said.
The Aggies from Logan are 4-0 on the road this season and have won six road contests in a row. This evening will be a challenge. USU (14-1, 5-0 WAC) got blown out last year at NMSU (10-8, 4-2), 80-60. It has never been an easy place for the blue-clad Aggies to play.
“It’s various things you deal with, their crowd and so forth,” Morrill said. “They probably feel the same way when they come here.”
NMSU swept the series last year, also winning in the Spectrum, 80-69.
This could be the final meeting between these long-time conference rivals in the Land of Enchantment with USU heading to the Mountain West Conference next season.
“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. ... 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.”
It took a good part of a day for Aggies from Utah to reach their destination. USU left Logan late Wednesday morning and didn’t arrive at its hotel in Las Cruces until after 9 p.m. The team flew to Denver and then, after a more than two-hour layover, flew to El Paso, Texas. The trip finished with an hour bus ride to Las Cruces.
“Have you ever heard of it taking 11 hours to get to Las Cruces,” Morrill quipped.
Now that the northern Aggies are in Las Cruces, the focus is on a tall, physical NMSU team. The crimson Aggies start a 7-foot-5 center in Sim Bhullar. The NMSU big man is coming off a 16-point effort and obviously is a menace on defense.
“Their big guy inside creates lots of issues trying to figure out how to deal with him,” Morrill said. “He is not just big, but has a real nice touch and obviously he takes up a ton of room.”
Then there is guard Daniel Mullings and forwards Tyrone Watson and Bandja Sy to deal with. Those three are experienced and among the WAC leaders in several statistical categories.
“Every time you go into New Mexico State, you know you are going to face a very athletic team, a very good rebounding team,” Morrill said. “Their guards are extremely impressive. ... As usual, they are a talented team.”
Since league play began, USU has faced more pressure bringing the ball up the court. Opponents have also been very physical. The USU coach doesn’t expect that to change this evening.
“We are not as physical a group as we maybe should be, but we are more athletic at times than we have been in the past,” Morrill said. “You have to respond to how the game is being called. I do think that is what people’s strategy is against us, with all our sets and our system.”
USU brings a 13-game winning streak into this contest. NMSU has won four in a row.
Earlier in the week Morrill said his team would need to “elevate” its play this week. He also challenged guys coming off the bench to be more aggressive, score and rebound. TeNale Roland, Ben Clifford and Marvin Jean have been practicing well of late, the coach said. They need to carry that into a game.
“Yeah, it would help our team a lot if we could get a little more bench production,” Morrill said. “... 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.”
While USU has won some close games during its winning streak that could have gone either way, so has NMSU. The Aggies from New Mexico hit a 3-pointer to force overtime at Seattle last week — a game they eventually won in double OT, 83-82. Two nights later they edged Idaho, 71-70, when Mullings made a free throw in the final seconds.
Preston Medlin continues to lead the WAC in scoring in conference games, averaging 22.0 points per game. Morrill expects to see Mullings on Medlin.
“He (Mullings) was impressive last year,” Morrill said. “He is even more impressive watching him this year.”
Consistency is the main theme Morrill is preaching to his team. Taking care of the ball, rebounding and playing team defense all come under that.
“We have got to eliminate the errors,” Morrill said. “... We got pounded by New Mexico State last year on the boards. If we don’t elevate our game and rebound the ball, it could be a long night in Las Cruces.”