Utah State student section, the HURD, in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum on Feb. 10, 2024. Photo by Robert K. Scott.

LOGAN — There’s hardly such a thing as a “must-win” game for a title race when there’s nearly three weeks left in the regular season, but this is as close as it could possibly get.

Utah State and San Diego State are tied for first place in the Mountain West standings. The Aztecs own a tiebreaker for now, since they won the first matchup against the Aggies 81-67 back on Jan. 30. A win by SDSU would complete a sweep and all but guarantee a finish ahead of Utah State since it’d be a game ahead and would still hold a tiebreaker.

For the Aggies, earning a tiebreaker isn’t possible, but splitting with the Aztecs and sending them a game back of the first place spot — and with three of their last four games being against the bottom three teams in the Mountain West — would go quite a long way to securing USU’s first regular season title since the 2018-19 season.

A point in favor of the Aggies is the fact that, against the other teams in the top six of the conference (New Mexico, Boise State, Colorado State and Nevada), the Aztecs have failed to win on the road despite beating every one of those teams at home (most by considerable margins).

SDSU Opponent When at Home When on Road
Colorado State W 71-55 L 79-71)
Nevada W 71-59 L 70-66 (OT)
New Mexico W 81-70 L 88-70
Boise State N/A (March 8) L 67-66
Utah State W 81-67 N/A (Feb. 20)

The last three wins by Utah State over San Diego State have all come in the Spectrum (a sweep in 2020-21 and a win in 2021-22, the Aggies lost their one home game vs SDSU 63-61 last year).

A customary part of any San Diego State preview should include noting the impact of Jaedon LeDee. He’s not only a frontrunner for Mountain West Player of the Year, but is in the conversation for National Player of the Year. He’s a constant 20-point, 10-rebound threat who can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the post, but can also step outside the arc and hit 3-pointers.

Last time out, LeDee had 16 points, nine rebounds, which is actually on the quiet side. The Aggies’ own star forward, Great Osobor, didn’t have any particular issues guarding LeDee, mainly giving up points on tough mid-range jumpers that any defender is willing to live with. 

Where the Aggies were burned the most in their 14-point loss earlier this year was how well SDSU’s role players performed. Jay Pal scored a season-high 16 points while Micah Parrish added 14, tied for the most he’s scored in conference play this year. The trio of Pal, Parrish and Elijah Saunders had shot a combined 29 percent on 3-pointers prior to that game but went 7 of 13 between the three in the Aztecs’ win.

“When those guys get threes, it’s really hard to guard them,” Sprinkle said after that game. “They made those shots and those are shots we have to live with.”

As much as SDSU’s offense has the potential to give teams fits, it’s the Aztecs’ defense that makes them who they are. Their identity remains on the defensive side despite having a high-scoring star and solid complimentary offensive weapons. And over the last five games they’ve flexed that defensive prowess, holding each of their last five opponents to 70 or fewer points (Nevada, one of the teams that scored 70, needed overtime to do so).

“They’re defending as well as anybody in the country, the last six, seven games,” Sprinkle said after Monday’s practice.

Utah State struggled to hit shots against SDSU last time out, shooting just 41 percent from the field, the Aggies’ sixth-worst shooting performance of the season. In fact, that game seemed to be a catalyst for a recent shooting slump by USU. At the time, the 41 percent was the fourth-worst shooting game of the Aggies’ season, but they’ve since posted two worse shooting nights — one of those at home against Nevada (39 percent, the other being at Colorado State this last Saturday at just 38.6 percent).

Finding ways to hit shots against good teams is simply something the Aggies will need to figure out how to do. Sprinkle doesn’t seem to have any issues with the shot quality or shot selection. He said his players just need to hit those shots.

“We’re getting the same looks we have all year,” Sprinkle said. “At this level, you got to make shots. We can’t get you more open. We got to knock some down. And the games that we have shot well, we’ve won, and usually we’re scoring in the 80s and 90s. When we’re making eight to 10 threes, we’re usually in the 80s and 90s.”

Projected Starters

Utah State: 21-5 (9-4, T-1st in MW)

  • G — Darius Brown (6-2, Sr.) – 11.3 points | 4.1 rebounds | 6.5 assists

  • G — Mason Falslev (6-3, Fr.) – 11.3 points | 4.5 rebounds | 2.5 assists

  • G — Ian Martinez (6-3, Jr.) – 13.6 points | 3.6 rebounds | 1.8 assists

  • F — Great Osobor (6-8, Jr.) – 17.8 points | 9.2 rebounds | 2.8 assists

  • C — Isaac Johnson (7-0, So.) – 6.5 points | 3.2 rebounds | 0.9 assists

San Diego State: 20-6 (9-4, T-1st in MW)

  • G — Lamont Butler (6-2, Sr.) — 9.5 points | 2.4 rebounds | 3.0 assists
  • G — Darrion Trammell (5-10, Sr.) — 8.1 points | 2.3 rebounds | 2.6 assists
  • G — Reese Dixon-Waters (6-5, Jr.) – 11.2 points | 3.8 rebounds | 1.3 assists

  • F — Jay Pal (6-9, Sr.) – 5.0 points | 3.8 rebounds | 0.8 assists

  • F — Jaedon LeDee (6-9, Sr.) – 20.4 points | 8.2 rebounds | 1.5 assists

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