Having opened the basketball season five days ago, the Aggie newcomers quickly realized the difference between playing Division II and I opponents.
Utah State did enough to pull out a 56-48 win over Idaho State in the opener after two blowout exhibition wins. While the end result was positive last Saturday, the Aggies (1-0) are in for a much stiffer challenge tonight.
Saint Mary’s visits the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum this evening for a 7 o’clock tipoff. The Gaels (1-0) are receiving votes in both Top 25 polls and are the defending West Coast Conference regular season and league tournament champions.
“It's going to be really interesting playing an experienced, high-quality team with a lot of really good, proven players,” USU head coach Stew Morrill said. “Obviously, that's what jumps out at you when you watch it on tape. They have a lot of guys who have had a lot of success. They're used to winning and used to winning on the road. We are a work in progress, I guess you could say. We're trying to figure ourselves out as we go. We're a lot of parts that are trying to fit together. It's going to be interesting.”
Saint Mary’s opened the season with a 95-69 home win over Sonoma State. Four Gaels scored in double figures and two had seven rebounds each.
Leading the way for Saint Mary’s was point guard Matthew Dellavedova with 20 points, five assists and five steals in 25 minutes of action. The senior is 6-foot-4 and played in the Olympics this past summer for his native country of Australia.
“They have one of the best guards in the country,” Morrill said of Dellavedova. “Watching him on tape, besides being a little scary, it's fun to see all the things he can do. He’s in on a ton of their plays, he's either shooting it in or he's passing to somebody or he's stealing a basketball. He's all over the place. It's really easy to say, OK, that he's what we've got to focus on, but then they've got their size guys inside. Several of them are experienced and picked to be all-conference.”
The Gaels have some size, starting guys inside that are 6-9 and 6-8. Then there is a senior seven-footer and a 6-11 junior coming off the bench.
USU does have some size this year to counter that. Jarred Shaw is 6-10 and 6-10 Jordan Stone comes off the bench. Shaw had nine rebounds and eight points in the opener, while Stone had five points and three boards.
The Aggie coach continues to preach physicality. Tonight’s contest will truly test whether USU has improved in that department.
“They're just so physical,” Morrill said of the Gaels. “The way they play the game is extremely hard and they're big at every position. They just can overpower you in terms of on the boards. They play great man-to-man defense.
“... That's one of the concerns with our team right now. How physical are we? That's not just because of this game, but going into the season. That's what we've talked to our guys about and what we've been trying to work on. We'll find out where we're at.”
The Bengals used a zone defense that gave the Aggies some problems. USU had 17 turnovers in the opener.
“It was a sloppy game, which is something we don’t want,” said Aggie guard Preston Medlin, who led the team with 14 points. “Seventeen turnovers is obviously something you don’t want.”
Especially since the Gaels had 14 steals in their opener.
Playing at home is a positive for USU, but Saint Mary’s has won in the Spectrum recently. The Gaels enjoyed a 68-63 win in Logan in 2009. The Aggies were triumphant in the last meeting, 75-65, which was in Moraga, Calif., on Feb. 19, 2011.
USU fans will recognize one Saint Mary’s guard on the bench. James Walker III played for the Aggies during his freshman season of 2010-11. As a freshman, Walker played in 25 games with one start and averaged 2.1 points, 1.2 assists and 1.0 rebounds in 9.6 minutes per game. After leaving USU, Walker went to Citrus College, where he averaged 19.1 ppg on the way to earning CCCAA state and SoCal Player of the Year honors.
“I think he's a more confident player now,” Morrill said of Walker. “He was a freshman when he was here. He had a good junior college year. ... My focus was not on James to be honest with you, it was on the guys who are playing more minutes. I hope he does well. It's a good program, so good for him.”
Walker played 17 minutes in his first game with the Gaels, scoring six points, grabbing three rebounds and coming up with two steals.