LOGAN — Although Utah State can already call itself champions, there’s still plenty to be fighting for in its season finale and senior night in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. And with an opponent of New Mexico’s caliber, it seems almost destined to be a classic.

When USU last took on the Lobos, back on Jan. 16, it was at the height of the Aggies’ national acclaim, ranking a season-best 16th in the AP Poll. They had an undefeated record in Mountain West play and were on a 15-game win streak that had produced a 16-1 overall record at the time.

All of that was to be put on the line for what was, at the time, Utah State’s toughest challenge of the year: a road game at The Pit.

Unfortunately for the Aggies, that challenge proved to be too much as they were cut down by a 13-point margin, 99-86. Those 99 points are not only the most allowed by Utah State this season, but the most since 2008.    

This rematch has a lot more at stake than just an AP ranking or double-digit win streak. Utah State is aiming for an outright claim on the Mountain West regular season championship and a victory would do just that with no questions asked. Should the Aggies lose, a shared title would still be there, though if Nevada also wins this weekend (against UNLV) it’d mean USU would be the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament.

After defeating the Aggies in mid-January, the Lobos themselves went on to a similar level of national recognition, rising to 19th in the AP Poll and into the top 20 in many computer rankings. But a 5-4 record since Jan. 31 has put a serious damper on New Mexico’s season aspirations. From eyeing a potential conference title and a high seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Lobos sit at sixth in the standings and are firmly on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament, with many bracketologists leaving them off their projections.

The desperation and hunger to win will be seen in the Lobos, something Utah State must find a way to overcome.

It’s not as though that metaphorical hunger is the only reason New Mexico could find a way to win, though. The Lobos boast arguably the best balances between frontcourt and backcourt in the entire conference. Donovan Dent, Jaelen House and Jamal Mashburn Jr. all average at least 14.9 points per game as volume shooting guards.

“They’ve got three of the best guards, not only in the Mountain West, but possibly in the country,” Sprinkle said.

Any of Dent, House and Mashburn have had their moments of simply going off scoring-wise as each have recorded a game with at least 28 points this season. Guarding all three is a herculean task only compounded by the great play of bench guard Tru Washington, a freshman guard averaging 7.2 points as a reserve.

For all the talent of New Mexico’s guards, though, it wasn’t the backcourt, or even perimeter play that torched the Aggies for 99 points since 62 of those were scored inside the paint. The Lobos shot 76 percent on layups/dunks as they formed a line at the rim possession after possession while Utah State scrambled to mount some sort of defense. Nelly Junior Joseph set what remains his season high with 26 points and JT Toppin added 12 points in just 19 minutes of play. The two shot a combined 16 of 18 from the floor for 38 points, close to double their normal combined scoring average.

“One of the undervalued parts of their team was their bigs. And they killed us last game,” Sprinkle said. “They’re super physical. They’re aggressive. Toppin (is) one of the best freshmen in the country, not just the league.”

Toppin and Junior Joseph’s rim protection had a similar impact to New Mexico’s previous win over the Aggies, Junior Joseph recording five blocks and Toppin adding a sixth to bolster what was in total 10 blocked shots for the Lobos back on Jan. 16. It chilled the rim-attacking efforts from the likes of Darius Brown and Ian Martinez, who went a combined 6 of 17 on 2-point attempts.

Utah State has firm counters to essentially everything New Mexico can throw at it, provided the execution is there. Aside from the insane points-in-the-paint efforts from the Lobos, among a handful of other things, the Aggies found ways to have success against a very good team on the road. They out-rebounded UNM (40-32), attempted 30 free throws, and forced Toppin and House into serious foul trouble (Junior Joseph also had four fouls, but didn’t have to miss too many minutes due to fouls). And, well, USU scored 86 points itself that night, showing that despite the great defensive acumen of the Lobos, Utah State can still put up points against them.

Defensively, the Aggies have the tools to stop the Lobos’ all-around offensive attack, it’s just a matter of executing. Isaac Johnson and Kalifa Sakho will need to play very good games, something both struggled to do last time vs New Mexico. But since that loss, they’ve been through tough fights and come out on top. Teams like Boise State and San Diego State proved to be significant challenges and times where both Johnson and Sakho ended up being the men of the hour in key victories.

“Since (the New Mexico loss) overall, we’ve been more physical,” Sprinkle said. “It woke our post guys up a little bit playing them. We have to guard them how we guarded Boise’s bigs. We’ve got to play with great energy and effort. We’ve got to try and do a great job, like front them not even letting them throw it in there and all that is just energy and effort.”

A storyline to watch will be how much and/or how well Mason Falslev and Josh Uduje are able to perform for the Aggies. Both suffered minor, but potentially impactful injuries against San Jose State. They’re likely to play, but if not at 100 percent, it’ll leave the Aggies without two massively important parts of their rotation and would put Javon Jackson on the spot to help lift Utah State to one of its most important victories of the season.

Projected Starters

Utah State: 25-5 (13-4, 1st in MW)

  • G — Darius Brown (6-2, Sr.) – 12.2 points | 4.3 rebounds | 6.3 assists
  • G — Mason Falslev (6-3, Fr.) – 11.7 points | 4.5 rebounds | 2.5 assists
  • G — Ian Martinez (6-3, Jr.) – 13.0 points | 3.8 rebounds | 1.7 assists
  • F — Great Osobor (6-8, Jr.) – 17.5 points | 8.9 rebounds | 2.9 assists
  • C — Isaac Johnson (7-0, So.) – 6.3 points | 3.1 rebounds | 0.9 assists

New Mexico: 22-8 (10-7, 6th in MW)

  • G — Jaelen House (6-1, Sr.) — 15.0 points | 3.4 rebounds | 3.4 assists
  • G — Donovan Dent (6-2, So.) — 14.9 points | 2.7 rebounds | 5.6 assists
  • G — Jamal Mashburn (6-2, Sr.) – 15.1 points | 2.1 rebounds | 1.7 assists
  • F — JT Toppin (6-9, Fr.) – 12.5 points | 9.0 rebounds | 0.5 assists
  • F — Nelly Junior Joseph (6-9, Jr.) – 9.1 points | 8.1 rebounds | 1.1 assists

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