LARAMIE, Wyo. — Utah State (15-9, 6-5) will challenge hot-handed Wyoming (19-3, 8-1) on Tuesday night in another revenge game for the Aggies. After losing their first five conference contests, Utah State has evened the season series against Air Force, and they have another chance to do so against the Cowboys.
Wyoming beat the Aggies in Logan earlier this year, but the game was close throughout. In fact, Utah State had a lead, 67-65, with just over one minute left. However, after an Aggie offensive foul and missed basket the Cowboys hit a last-second shot to win 71 to 69.
“You go back and look at the stat sheet, we were in it and had a chance,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said. “I thought our guys did a nice job here in the Spectrum in giving ourselves a chance to win. We’ve got to do what we did in that particular game just a little bit better. Our offense needs to be better if we’re going to come out with a win in a tough environment.”
Wyoming has one of the best home-court advantages in the conference this season. They have not lost at the Arena-Auditorium in over a year, dating back to a Colorado State victory on Feb. 6, 2021. The Cowboys have celebrated home wins against the likes of Utah Valley, Boise State and Colorado State this season.
“Our guys are a confident group right now, but we’re going into a really tough environment that nobody has won in this year. We understand that, but we’re not afraid of it,” Odom said. “They’ve had great environments there. I expect that to be the case.”
Like the Aggies, the Pokes enter the contest on a winning streak. They have won four straight with their last win coming at Fresno State on Sunday, 61 to 59.
“Right now they’re really hot. One of the best teams in our conference if not the best. They’ve won on the road. They’ve won at home,” Odom said.
Along with a win-streak and home-court advantage, the Cowboys have the reigning Mountain West Player of the Week on their side. Guard Hunter Maldonado has been on a tear lately. He picked up his third player of the week honor by putting up 35 points against Colorado State last Monday. This season, Maldonado has averaged 19.3 points, 5.6 rebounds and 6.4 assists.
“Maldonado really controls the game. Knows when he needs to go. Knows when he needs to deliver the ball to someone else for a timely 3 or shot. He just puts so much pressure on you in a lot of different ways,” Odom said.
The Cowboys’ leading scorer is forward Graham Ike who made the game-winner against the Aggies in Logan earlier this year. He puts up 20.0 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game.
“He’s just a load down low. He has way more skill than you would expect,” Odom said. “He has control of the ball like a guard would have when he’s dribbling which is pretty exceptional for a young player. Then you combine that skill with physicality. Then you have a really tough guard.”
Ike has great success while playing 30.2 minutes per game. Some teams have tried to rack up fouls on Ike to take him out of the game, but Odom said his team is not planning on that solely.
“Sometimes if you just focus on that, it cannot work in your favor. We just have to play the game,” Odom said. “He sits out part of the game anyway. They rest him enough and they kind of go to the big guy early and in the middle of the game… He’s certainly a factor but then he’s out of the game for a good five to seven minutes.”
Wyoming also has three solid 3-point shooters in guards Drake Jeffries, Xavier DuSell and Brendan Wenzel. They all shoot over 36% from beyond the arc. Together, they have totaled 130 made 3’s this season. The Cowboys balance Maldonado and Ike with these perimeter shooters to stretch opposing defenses.
“They surround those two guys with really good shooters,” Odom said. “They force you to pick your poison. Do you want to double the post? Do you want to get out there on the 3? What do you want to live with? They’re a tough team to keep off-balance,” Odom said.
The Pokes offense changes significantly based on if Ike or Maldando are in the game. The Aggies focused on how they would address the vastly different lineups during practice on Monday.
“We’re going to have to guard lineups with Ike, where Ike is posting up. We’re going to have to guard lineups with Maldonado and Maldonado is posting up with Ike in the game. And then we’re going to have to guard Maldonado without Ike in the game,” Odom said.
For the Aggies to win this game, they will look for better performance on offense than they had in their last game against the Cowboys. Utah State shot 40.6% from the field and made six 3’s on 26 attempts in that contest. They also missed four free throws.
Utah State will also need support from forward Brandon Horvath who has had a tremendous impact on the last three games. Over that stretch, Horvath has put up 17.7 points, 9.7 rebounds and 5.7 assists for the Aggies.
“Brandon has to play like Brandon. He’s a confident player. He’s shooting the ball much better. He’s scoring around the rim,” Odom said.
Finding the open man and quick passes will also be important to any Aggie success. Last time against Wyoming, the Cowboys were able to limit Utah State to 12 assists while forcing eight turnovers. Importantly, increased passing efficiency has been a key factor in the Aggies’ win streak. In the last five games, Utah State has recorded 21.8 assists per game.
“We have to make sure that we’re moving that ball really fast,” Odom said.
The game is scheduled to tip-off at 7 p.m. and will be streamed on Stadium and the Mountain West Network.