AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. – Utah State (9-4) will begin conference play against Air Force (7-4) in their last game of 2021. The Aggies are opening conference play at Air Force for the fourth time since joining the conference.
“Obviously excited about beginning Mountain West play,” head coach Ryan Odom said. “I’m excited about the opportunity for us to get off to a good start.”
The Mountain West Conference looks to be ultra-competitive this season with six teams in the top 70 in the NCAA’s NET rankings.
“Anybody could win,” Odom said. “We’re one of two leagues that has every team over .500… We’ve faired well against others, our peers outside of our conference, and now it’s time for us to figure ourselves out within our conference.”
Air Force has had a streaky start to their season. After a loss to South Dakota to open the season, the Falcons put together a seven-game win streak against the likes of Tulsa, Denver and Holy Cross. However, Air Force is currently on a three-game losing streak in which they’ve lost by at least 18 in each game and have failed to score over 50 points.
What is important to note is the Falcons seem to play much better at home. The Falcons are undefeated at Clune Arena this year with a 4-0 record. They’ve scored significantly more at home averaging 16 more points per game compared to their average on the road.
On offense, the Aggies feel comfortable with their style of play. So far, it has led them to average 79.5 points per game, the most by any Utah State squad since the 1990-91 season.
“Offensively for us, they switch a lot, they play the matchup zone and so we can’t out-think ourselves there. We’ve got to make sure that we’re just playing our game and moving the ball and really just trying to spread them out and get inside their defense.”
Defensively, Utah State will have their hands full, especially in the paint. However, Odom said they have played against similar offenses this season and succeeded against Pennsylvania and Richmond.
“Their offense is designed to pick on you,” Odom said. “All of our guys are going to have to be able to guard the post. And just be really diligent in our communication and consistent with our connectivity defensively… The key is keeping bodies in front of them and chest in front. I’m confident our guys will be ready for the challenge.”
Air Force’s leading scorer is guard A.J. Walker. He earned Sunshine Slam MVP honors this season as he led Air Force to the multi-team event’s trophy. He was also named All-Mountain West Third Team last season. Walker averages 16.6 points, 1.8 assists and 3.8 rebounds per game.
“(He’s a) tough matchup because he can shoot behind the arc, he can dribble inside the defense, he’s really good at reading screens in their offense and then he’s really dynamite in the post,” Odom said.
Freshman guards Ethan Taylor and Jake Heidbreder have stepped up for the Falcons early this season. Taylor leads the Falcons in minutes per game and averages 9.3 points, 3.9 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game. Heidbreder contributes 8.6 points, 1.5 assists and 2.5 rebounds per game.
“Two really good prospects for them,” Odom said. “They’re talented guys and they’re going to grow their program for sure.”
The Aggies are continuing to deal with injuries that have impacted four of their five starters and a couple of bench players early in the season. Guard Brock Miller did not play in Utah State’s last game and has been limited to “minor contact” in practice according to Odom.
“Everybody’s kind of dinged up this time of year as you head into things. We’ve really got to do our best to monitor that within our practices.”
Utah State has taken similar precautions with forward Justin Bean as he rehabs an ankle injury he sustained at Weber State.