SAN JOSE, Calif. — Having played the underdog last weekend in a pair of road games, the Aggies are now back in the familiar role as the favorite.
At least that is how those in Las Vegas who decide those sort of things see it. For the Utah State men’s basketball team, it will be business as usual.
Which means working hard and taking it one game at a time.
“We just need to keep it rolling, kept it going, not get too high that we won,” Aggie center Jarred Shaw said. “... We just need to stay positive and keep fighting.”
As far as being the favorite, that notion is being shrugged off. Most of the USU players still look at themselves as the underdog and relish that role right now. Even Aggie head coach Stew Morrill said his team understands they’re in an “underdog role” right now.
“We just need to play harder on the road with everybody going against us,” Aggie guard TeNale Roland said. “We are the underdogs, so we need to come and play hard.”
USU swept a pair of road games last week, ending a four-game skid. The Aggies (16-5, 7-4 Western Athletic Conference) complete three straight away from home Friday night by taking on San Jose State (9-13, 3-8) at the Event Center. Tip-off is set for 8 o’clock.
The USU team flew to California on Thursday afternoon after a practice in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. Following dinner, many of the Aggies headed to a gym to put up some shots.
“We have a two-game winning streak and need to keep it going,” Roland said. “We lost four in a row before that, which was not good at all.”
Those setbacks took the Aggies out of the driver’s seat in the league standings. Now they are in fourth, behind Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State and Denver. With seven conference games remaining, USU is trying to build some momentum.
“We went through some adversity, not going to say we overcame our adversity, but we fought and will keep fighting to overcome it,” said Shaw, who is leading the Aggies in scoring (13.5 ppg) and rebounding (8.4 rpg). “What better way than to start on the road, boost our confidence to keep rolling through the second half of conference play.”
The Spartans have also dealt with some adversity this season. Leading scorer James Kinney, who was averaging 20.6 ppg, has not played the last eight games and is not expected to play this evening.
San Jose State came to Logan last month having won four of its last five games and was 3-1 in WAC games. USU was able to notch its 13th straight win with a hard-fought 66-60 victory. That game was tied three times, and there were seven lead changes in the first half. Plus, the Aggies had Preston Medlin and Kyisean Reed in that game.
“They’ve taken a giant step forward in physicality,” Morrill said of the Spartans. “Their overall defensive approach is to come out and kind of knock you down man-to-man. ... They were really physical in our game here. It’s the best San Jose defensive team I have seen in many years.”
Since that first meeting, SJSU has proceeded to lose seven straight and drop way down in the league standings. However, there is no way the Aggies are going to overlook the Spartans.
“We can’t overlook them at all,” said USU guard/forward Spencer Butterfield, who has notched four straight double-doubles. “They are definitely a better team than their record. We need to not take them lightly and be prepared for them and be ready to go and battle.”
In its last outing, SJSU nearly rallied for a win at Idaho. Last Saturday the Spartans came back from a double-digit deficit to the Vandals and fell 66-63. Morrill called his opponent this evening a “bit snakebitten.”
“They are plenty capable of beating anybody on a given night,” Morrill said. “Their losses don’t mean anything to us. It means they’re probably more motivated to try and get a win. ... The last thing we need to do is waltz in there and win. We’re not going to waltz in anywhere and win. We have to play extremely hard.”
Just one active player is averaging double digits in scoring. Forward Chris Cunningham is scoring 10.4 ppg and grabbing 9.0 rpg. At Idaho he had 18 rebounds. Guard D.J. Brown came off the bench to score 18 points.
“They have a number of players who can step up and have big nights,” Morrill said.
“We’ve just got to come to play,” Roland said. “It’s conference, so everybody is going to be ready to play.”
Roland is coming off a career-high 12-point performance at Seattle last Saturday, where he also had four assists. The junior guard’s scoring average is more than four points better on the road this season.
“I guess I just play better on the road,” Roland said. “I don’t know what it is.”
Right now, it has been a total team effort by the eight Aggies who have been playing since Medlin and Reed went down. This will be the sixth game USU has had just eight players with any experience.