The second leg of Utah State’s two-game road trip will be the headliner of the pair of away games as it’ll feature a rematch between the Aggies and Colorado State.

In the last matchup between these two sides, USU got the better end of the deal with a 77-72 victory despite solid performances from Rams stars Isaiah Stevens (21 points, eight assists) and Nique Clifford (15 points). The Aggies made a strong push in the second half, powered by great performances from its own stars like Great Osobor (20 points, 14 rebounds) and Mason Falselv (18 points, six rebounds).

At the time, the Rams had only lost one game (prior to losing to USU that is) and it set in course the scenario we find the Mountain West in now — Utah State alone in first place with Colorado State among a myriad of teams in the 2-7 range of the standings, jumping up and down every couple of days or so. As an example of this high degree of upward and downward mobility in the standings, if Colorado State were to win, they’d move from sixth and into a tie for third (the Aggies, at worst, would end up in a tie for first).

Colorado State sits in sixth at the moment in part due to a massive missed opportunity on the road at San Diego State, a game that could be considered an all-time second-half meltdown. Not so much because of the size of the lead it gave up to eventually lose, but the complete depths to which the Rams’ offense dropped after a great first half of shooting. CSU led the Aztecs 44-30 in Viejas Arena, no small feat. The Rams accomplished this by shooting 54 percent in the first half including 50 percent (7 of 14) from three.

But, in the second half, that great offense didn’t just fall off, it vanished from the known universe. Colorado State made three, yes, just three, field goals in the second half and scored only 11 points. San Diego State flipped their script on offense, scoring 41 in the second to finish the evening with a 71-55 victory.

That collapse is something of an exaggerated microcosm of Colorado State’s offense as it’s come into contact with Mountain West teams. KenPom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency credits the Rams with the 32nd-best offense in the country with a rating of 116.0. Isolate that same rating to only conference play and CSU owns a rating of 106.8, good for fifth-worst in the conference. If that 106.8 rating were the Rams’ season-long number, it’d rank 161st.

Even with that drop, the Rams remain a dangerous team, if for no other reason than the presence of Isaiah Stevens, who leads the nation in assists while also averaging north of 16 points per game. He’s not the only player the Aggies will be looking out for though.

“Obviously know (Stevens) is the head of the snake,” USU head coach Danny Sprinkle said. “But they have so much other talent, which makes him a great team. They’re big. They’re strong. Their wings are tremendous. They shoot the ball at a really high level, especially at home”

Nique Clifford is the next man up for the Rams in terms of scoring, but is also one of their top defenders. Clifford is averaging a career-best 13.2 points per game following his transfer from Colorado where he spent three seasons. His shooting percentages have skyrocketed while with the Rams, going from a 39 percent shooter in three seasons with the Buffaloes up to 57 percent in his one season in Fort Collins. His shot-making, as well as rebounding from the wing (7.0 rebounds per game) make him a dangerous weapon for CSU.

Although Clifford and Stevens will rightly draw a significant amount of attention, there’s another player, Patrick Cartier, who could very well provide a back-breaking support performance. Key word is could though, because his availability for Saturday’s game isn’t set in stone.

Cartier, the Rams’ fourth-leading scorer, left Tuesday’s game against San Diego State with just under six minutes to play. He’d contested a mid-range jump shot when the toe of his left shoe got caught on the floor leading to him rolling his ankle. Cartier left the game immediately, needing help due to a significant limp. According to a report from Justin Michael of DNVR Sports, Cartier is questionable for Saturday’s game.

If Cartier were unable to play, it would not only mean losing someone averaging 11 points per game, but it would rob the Rams of some key depth and someone that caused the Aggies problems last time out. In the initial Jan. 6 game, Cartier scored 15 points and made 7 of 10 shots inside the arc, not even needing his outside shot (he went 0 for 2 despite being a 40 percent shooter from 3-point range) to make an impact on offense. The only thing that really stopped Cartier was his foul trouble. After the two sides traded buckets and leads for pretty much the entire second half, Cartier picked up his fourth foul with 7:29 left. At the time, CSU led 57-55. When he came back in, the Aggies had made a game-altering run and led 64-57.

Having all three of Cartier, Clifford and Stevens would help the Rams maintain a dangerous shooting offense as all three shoot over 40 percent on 3-pointers. And with Cartier manning the center spot most of the time, it lets CSU play a five-out offense, a terrifying prospect when combined with perimeter scorers like Clifford and Stevens.

On the other side of the floor, when the Aggies have the ball, the Rams will look to improve greatly from their defense against Great Osobor last time out. Osobor’s 20 points and numerous fouls drawn wreaked havoc on Colorado State and helped foul out both Cartier and Clifford. The Aggies last three opponents have held Osobor in check as he’s not scored more than 11 points in USU’s last three games, it’ll be interesting to see if the Rams take lessons from Nevada, Boise State and Wyoming, the teams to accomplish this feat.

Even without Osobor dominating as much in recent games, the Aggies have found success. They beat Boise State and the defeated Wyoming on the road (no small feat). Darius Brown played a huge role in both, scoring 24 points against the Cowboys and 18 vs Boise State. Brown got significant assistance in both games as Mason Falslev scored a career-best 25 in the BSU game and Josh Uduje had 20 in Laramie. Utah State’s shown they can win even without its top player dominating the stat sheet.

“That’s what we’ve been doing all year, guys stepping up,” Sprinkle said. “Everybody’s helping win. Are teams like packing the paint, making a tough on Great, yeah. But he needs to play better. He needs to play harder. He needs to create some of those opportunities.”

With Brown playing so well, perhaps a notable aspect of rematch tactics will be how Colorado State defends him in ball screens. The Rams largely played drop coverage, yielding off-the-dribble threes and midrange shots to the Aggie guards (mostly Brown). Given USU’s backcourt aren’t the greatest off-the-bounce shooters (per Synergy tracking data the Aggies shoot 25.7 percent on off-the-dribble 3-pointers) this is a pretty sound strategy. And on Jan. 6, Brown failed to capitalize on this defense, shooting 2 of 11. He tried to attack the drop defense in multiple ways, pull-up threes, mid-range jumpers and attacking the rim, but aside from a couple jumpers made early in the first half, Brown didn’t find much success.

What could make things a lot different is the form Brown is currently in. Heading into the CSU game, Brown had averaged 9.3 points on 40 percent shooting over a 10-game stretch, being held to single-digit scoring in seven of those 10 games. Fast-forward to now and looking back five games, Brown is averaging 15.0 points on 51 percent shooting.

Projected Starters

Utah State: 20-4 (8-3, 1st in MW)

  • G — Darius Brown (6-2, Sr.) – 11.2 points | 4.0 rebounds | 6.6 assists
  • G — Mason Falslev (6-3, Fr.) – 12.0 points | 4.7 rebounds | 2.5 assists
  • G — Ian Martinez (6-3, Jr.) – 13.6 points | 3.5 rebounds | 1.8 assists
  • F — Great Osobor (6-8, Jr.) – 18.3 points | 9.3 rebounds | 2.9 assists
  • C — Isaac Johnson (7-0, So.) – 6.8 points | 3.2 rebounds | 1.0 assists

Colorado State: 19-6 (7-5, 6th in MW)

  • G — Isaiah Stevens (6-0, Sr.) — 16.1 points | 3.0 rebounds | 7.4 assists
  • G — Josiah Strong (6-3, Sr.) – 8.4 points | 2.7 rebounds | 2.1 assists
  • G — Nique Clifford (6-5, Sr.) – 13.2 points | 7.0 rebounds | 2.6 assists
  • F — Joel Scott (6-7, Sr.) – 11.6 points | 5.7 rebounds | 1.4 assists
  • F — Patrick Cartier (6-8, Sr.) – 11.6 points | 2.1 rebounds | 1.9 assists

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