Sean Bairstow. Photo by Clint Allen
LOGAN, Utah – The Aggies (8-4) return to the Spectrum tonight to host Portland State (3-6). Utah State will look to bounce back from their loss to Iowa against their second Big Sky Conference opponent this season.
“Excited about the opportunity to get back into the Spectrum here against a good Portland State team,” Odom said. “We’re expecting a battle.”
The Vikings are on a three-game losing streak but have lost their last two by just one score. Portland State has only one win in December coming against conference opponent Idaho State.
The Aggies and Vikings have had two common opponents this season: Weber State and Iowa. Portland State lost to both schools while Utah State beat the Wildcats and fell to the Hawkeyes.
Historically, the Aggies control the series 3-2, but have dropped the last two meetings with the Vikings including a 2017 neutral-site contest. Before that game, one would have to go back to 1978 for a previous matchup. Utah State has never lost to Portland State at home, going 2-0 all-time.
The Vikings are a jigsaw puzzle that head coach Jase Coburn is still trying to piece together. The squad is made up of more than 10 transfers, including two from power five schools.
“They got quite a few transfers. They put this team together in short order and done a really good job with that. And these guys are beginning to round into form as they’re getting ready to head into conference play like us,” Odom said.
Most of their transfers are still trying to fit into Coburn’s system, but they are not quite there from Odom’s perspective.
“They’ve all come from good programs and done really well where they were at. And it’s just a matter of putting those pieces together and I know their coaches are working on that now. They all shot it at a higher percentage, if you go back and look at it, from three than they have so far this season. And so it’s just a matter of time before they get it going again,” Odom said.
Their leading scorer, guard Marlon Ruffin, has played in every game this season but came off the bench for the first time last game at California State Northridge. The move may come as the Vikings try to replicate his production two years ago, before he transferred from Omaha, when he was Summit League Sixth Man of the Year. They might try this rotation again as he put up a season-high 26 points against the Matadors including 18 in the second half, despite averaging 13.1 points per game this year.
Forward James Jean-Marie is the second-leading scorer for the Vikings. He averages a double-double with 12.9 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. The Hawaii transfer is second in the nation in offensive rebounds per game with 4.56.
“He’s excellent,” Odom said. “A big guy around the rim that if given angles and avenues to the basket is really tough to deal with… Guy averages four offensive rebounds a game, I mean, that’s elite. So we’re gonna have to block him out and make sure that he’s not getting extras on the glass,” Odom said.
Long Beach State transfer Michael Carter III is a guard that’s also played well for the Vikings so far this season. He’s second on the team in assists with 2.6 per game. He also puts up 9.1 points and grabs 2.9 rebounds per game.
“Carter, obviously, is a very, very good player. Dynamic player, gets to the basket and can attack you,” Odom said.
The team leader in assists is guard Ezekial Alley. He averages 3.2 assists per game. Alley played off the bench to start the season but started in place of Ruffin at California State Northridge as they seem to try this new minute allocation. He didn’t fare as well as Ruffin did offensively, as he dipped below his season averages in points and assists during his start, but on defense, he grabbed two steals and tied a season-high with five rebounds. It will be interesting to see if they try this rotation in the Spectrum tonight.
Portland State is just the latest challenge in what has been a loaded first half of the season for Utah State.
“We’ve played a hard schedule. Our schedule is ranked top 50 in the country this season which is awesome for us. And we’ve faired well within that schedule so it’s kept our rankings up there which is huge going into conference play. But, we still have one more to play here which is really important. We know that all these games are important as it relates to the overall totality of your schedule,” Odom said.
The Aggies’ busy, tough early schedule has led to injuries for Utah State. Sean Bairstow, Justin Bean and Rylan Jones have all been injured recently. Additionally, there may be possible undisclosed or lingering issues among other players.
“We’re dinged up, quite honestly. The break is coming at a good time for us. We’ve had a long run, when you schedule 31 games and you travel east like we have. We’ve had very little time to kind of rest and practice,” Odom said.
While acknowledging that as a potential issue, Odom said the bench has stepped up and that they’re hopeful another bench option will return to the rotation tonight.
“We have a pretty deep team as it is… We’re hoping for Sean (Bairstow) to be back, to be able to get some minutes potentially,” Odom said.
Regardless of how the game ends up, the Aggies will have a little over a week to rest and prepare for their first conference game at Air Force on Dec. 29.
“I think the break will come at a good time for us,” Odom said.
The game will tip-off at 7 p.m. MST tonight and will be streamed on the Mountain West Network.