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Washington vs. Utah State Game Preview Part I

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Recapping Utah State’s season and their statistical strengths and weaknesses in the first part of our analysis of UW’s first round opponent

NCAA Basketball: Nevada at Utah State Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

The last time the Washington Huskies played in an NCAA tournament game was on March 20th, 2011. Just over 8 years ago. Now Washington is back and looking to once again face off against North Carolina in the 2nd round except this time, win the game. But that’s looking way too far in the future. All of our energy is focused on Friday’s contest against the Utah State Aggies.

Since this is the NCAA tournament, I’ll be spreading out my normal game preview and analysis over the course of several days. Today, I’ll give you the summary of Utah State’s season as well as the background info on their statistics. Then I’ll go in-depth on all of Utah State’s rotation players. Of course I’ll conclude with a full matchup breakdown and my game prediction at the end of the week.

Utah State 2018-19 Season Summary

Expectations were not high for the Aggies entering the 2018-19 season. Utah State was picked 9th in the Mountain West Conference media poll. At the time it wasn’t a completely unreasonable pick. Utah State went 8-10 the year before, finished 8th in the MWC, and ended up 139th nationally in KenPom’s rankings. That team was led by the sophomore guard tandem of Sam Merrill and Koby McEwen who each averaged about 16 points per game. McEwen though decided to transfer to Marquette. Meanwhile, 4th leading scorer DeAngelo Isby left early to play professionally and is now in the G-league. They were replaced by...0 ranked recruits. Not exactly a recipe for success.

However, those two leaving may have been cases of addition by subtraction. Neither was a very efficient player (below 50% eFG%) and they combined to shoot almost 275 3-pointers and made barely 30% of them. Instead, more of those shots went to Sam Merrill who was way more efficient in his fewer opportunities. More on him below.

The team got off to a 5-0 start including a 17-point neutral site win over Saint Mary’s in which they were a 5-point underdog. They followed that up with a close loss to Arizona State and later in the non-conference a 15-point defeat at BYU in a down year. Sandwiched amidst the Q4 games was a 24-point blowout of Big West champ UC Irvine which finished the season 30-5 and hinted at Utah State’s potential.

They had a rough start to the MWC season as they opened up conference play at league favorite Nevada and were blown off the court. A week later they blew a game by a single point to Fresno State at home and were sitting at 11-5 (1-2). Their next 6 games were all against teams that finished 160th or worse at KenPom but the Aggies took care of business. They then returned the favor at Fresno State and won by a single point in Fresno. Coming off the high of that game they dropped a road game at San Diego State and apparently Utah State decided that was enough of that dumb losing thing.

The Aggies went on a tear and finished 7-0 in the Mountain West to close out the regular season. That stretch included a home win over Nevada that was overshadowed by the ugly post-game incident. It also gave Utah State a shared regular season title alongside Nevada although USU lost the tiebreaker and entered the conference tournament as the #2 seed. The rags to riches story helped Utah State dominate the conference’s award banquet as Merrill was named MWC Player of the Year, coach Craig Smith won Coach of the Year, and center Neemias Queta won both Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.

They were denied a tiebreaking showdown with Nevada in the finals of the conference tournament because the Wolfpack were upset early by SDSU. But Utah State obliterated Fresno State by 25 in the semifinals after playing them to a draw through the first 2 games and avenged their loss to San Diego State in the finals to end up the MWC conference champions. They enter the NCAA tournament at 29-6 (15-3) and the winners of 17 of their last 18 games. USU lost to 3 teams after Christmas and went 4-0 against those 3 teams when they played them in a rematch following the loss. That was enough to earn them an 8-seed and the right to play Washington in the first round.

Utah State Statistical Profile

NET Ranking: 29th

KenPom Efficiency Ranking: 34th

Adjusted Offensive Efficiency: 113.0 (32nd)

Adjusted Defensive Efficiency: 96.3 (47th)

Points per Game: 79.0 (31st)

Points Allowed per Game: 67.1 (55th)

Strength of Schedule: 0.01 (145th)

One of Utah State’s defining traits is their balance. They finished the season in the top-50 in both offensive and defensive efficiency which is not an easy feat. Only 24 teams this season met that bar in both categories. The Aggies also played almost an exactly average schedule. They cleaned up against lesser competition and finished 22-1 in Q3/Q4 games and just 5-5 in Q1/Q2 games. Of course, USU fans would point out that the team was 3-1 against Q1/Q2 opponents in the final 2+ months of the season and 14-0 in Q3/Q4 contests.

Utah State Strengths

Defensive Rebound Percentage: 77.8% (5th)

Defensive 2-pt Percentage: 42.1% (4th)

Assists per Field Goal Made: 62.0% (6th)

Offensive 2-pt Percentage: 54.6% (35th)

The biggest strength for Utah State is clearly their interior defense. It’s not among the listed stats above but the Aggies are also 38th in effective height. Every rotation player stands at least 6’3 and the paint is anchored by 6’11 Neemias Queta. This isn’t a team that marches out four 6’9 players like Oregon but they run at least average in terms of height at every position.

They are effective at packing the paint and funneling a driver to where they have their elite shot blocker waiting. Opponents shoot only 35% on short midrange floaters and jumpers on about 9 attempts per game. And their wings are fantastic at helping out to secure the defensive rebound when the shot doesn’t go in.

On the other end of the court the Aggies are very skilled at breaking down a defense. You might expect a team led by a 20+ points per game scorer to be reliant on that person to make plays but the entire team is made of willing passers. Utah State has 6 rotation players averaging at least 1.5 assists per game so they’ll all make the extra pass. For context, Washington has only 3 such players. The ball is constantly moving which means that almost every Utah State basket is assisted.

And the end result of all of that passing is that they’re often able to find an open man near the basket. The stats are very reminiscent of Belmont, who UW played last year. Utah State runs a very fluid offense full of back cuts and opportunities for layups if a defense loses their focus. Over 60% of Utah State’s makes come in the paint and only about 10% of their total attempts are midrange jumpers. The focus is on efficient shot selection and they do it well.

Utah State Weaknesses

Defensive Turnover Percentage: 17.2% (258th)

Defensive 3-pt Percentage: 34.9% (205th)

Offensive Points per Possession on Post-Ups: 0.769 (31st percentile)

Offensive Points per Possession on Isolation: 0.738 (29th percentile)

One of the problems with the pack the paint strategy on defense is that it leaves you vulnerable on the perimeter and understandably, Utah State struggles both at forcing turnovers and stopping the 3-point shot. The Aggies have decided that they’re not going to take many risks to jump passing lanes and gamble for steal attempts if it means an open driving lane. And if you aren’t going to step beyond the 3-pt arc to challenge shots then it leaves you susceptible to hot shooting from the opponent.

As mentioned above, Utah State’s offense is all about cuts to the basket and allowing players to get open through passing rather than dribbling. They have a fantastic offensive system but the individual talent isn’t there to reliably beat people 1-on-1. If things get bogged down and someone has to make a play late in the shot clock then they can really struggle.

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