A short-handed Aggie men’s basketball team will be trying to not be part of history tonight.
Since Stew Morrill took over at Utah State for the 1998-99 season, his Aggies have never lost four games in a row. In fact, the last time USU dropped four straight games was in 1994. In his 15th season at the helm, the Morrill-led Aggies face a daunting task this evening.
Having lost three in a row — just the sixth time this has happened at USU with Morrill as head coach — the Aggies (14-4, 5-3 Western Athletic Conference) host first-place Louisiana Tech (17-3, 8-0). Tip-off at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum is set for 7 o’clock.
“The greatest players have the worst memories,” Aggie forward Ben Clifford said. “Louisiana Tech is the best team in the league, haven’t lost a game in league. We know that coming in. ... We just need to forget (the losses) and just prepare for Saturday.”
Tonight will be the third game USU will take the court with just eight players that have seen action. Freshman walk-on Connor Garner, who is redshirting, is available if needed.
Captains Kyisean Reed and Preston Medlin were injured last week. Reed had surgery on his left knee Thursday and is lost for the season. Medlin, who was leading the team in scoring and the Preseason WAC Player of the Year, has a cast on his right wrist and could possibly return toward the end of the season.
“Our leaders are still there, encouraging us,” Clifford said. “They know they are our leaders, just not on the floor with us.”
For now, the remaining players must circle the wagons and realize there is no calvary coming. It is upon them to get the job done.
“We need to keep fighting,” USU head coach Stew Morrill said. “... We need everybody to play as hard as they can possibly play. Then maybe we get a close one.”
The Aggie coach stressed all eight players must show up ready to play and give their all. He said each owes it to their teammates. Plus, all eight are needed and will play.
“We’ve got eight, so it’s not like you don’t play hard enough, you don’t get to play,” Morrill said. “You still get to play. That’s reality.”
The Bulldogs come to town having won nine straight. They have won a number of close contests, but Thursday’s victory at San Jose State was a blowout. Louisiana Tech thumped the Spartans, 76-54.
The Aggies had trouble in the turnover department in Thursday’s 74-68 loss to UT Arlington. USU committed 17 turnovers, which obviously limited scoring opportunities.
To have a chance this evening, the Aggies must take better care of the ball. The Bulldogs will most certainly turn up the pressure. LTU is forcing its opponents into an average of 17.7 turnovers per game. San Jose State had 17 turnovers Thursday.
“The press we are going to see (against LTU) is a whole different game,” Morrill said. “This is going to be a big challenge, especially after we drop the first one at home on a weekend. You have to be tough enough to bounce back and compete. If you are not, you are going to drop a couple. ... We need to bounce back quickly.”
Like the Mavericks, the Bulldogs play a smaller lineup and have really balanced scoring. Plus, five LTU players are averaging at least a steal a game. The Bulldogs also block more than five shots a game.
“We’ve got to be more firm with the ball and not turn it over, no matter how hard they are playing and no matter how the refs are calling it,” Aggie guard Spencer Butterfield said. “We’ve got to be strong with the ball. ... We’ll get a lot better and keep working harder in practice in not turning the ball over and hopefully that will show up in the game Saturday.”
While history is on the Aggies’ side — they have never lost to the Bulldogs in the Spectrum in seven previous meetings — this season is shaping up to be nothing like any in recent memory. USU has lost three starters this year to injury and just two players have any experience before this year.
The Aggies struggled in the shooting department Thursday. Normally, USU shoots better in the second half, but made 32.1 percent over the final 20 minutes and shot 36.4 percent for the game.
“Some nights it just doesn’t go in like you want it to,” said Butterfield, who had a game-best 23 points Thursday. “Our guys will come back ready to work and keep shooting. They will start dropping.”
“We need to have guys step up and make shots, and we will,” Clifford said.
Did fatigue play a part with less players to rotate in?
“Maybe a little, that’s just something to get used to,” Clifford said. “Game shape is different than practice shape. We just need to keep working in practice. We’re going to get more reps and hopefully it will not be a factor.”
Morrill dismissed that question and refused to make excuses.