Justin Bean flexes during a men’s basketball game vs UNLV on Saturday, February 5, 2022. Photo by Tina Lerohl
LAS VEGAS — No. 7 seeded Utah State (17-14, 8-10) opens up Mountain West Conference Tournament play against No. 10 Air Force (11-17, 4-13). It will be the third matchup between the two squads this season and the first time the teams have met in a conference tournament in their 29-game series history.
The Aggies’ game will be the second in a slate of three first-round games on Wednesday.
“I think it’s going to be a great tournament,” head coach Ryan Odom said. “A lot of great teams this year. It’s going to be really competitive.”
This season series was split between the Falcons and Aggies this year. Each team won the game at their home court. In Utah State’s first conference game of the season, Air Force won by holding the Aggies to a season-low 47 points.
“They got the better of us in a tight game,” Odom said.
In the Falcons’ return trip, Utah State shot 61.9% from the field with four Aggies scoring in double digits to win by 27.
“We played much better (in the Spectrum) against them later in the season,” Odom said.
In that contest, forward Brandon Horvath had a monster performance tallying 17 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Outings like that impressed the Mountain West. On Tuesday, Horvath was selected to this season’s All-Conference Third Team.
“I’m proud of him,” Odom said. “This team needed him to start and needed him to perform really well and he has.”
For Air Force, guard A.J. Walker was listed as an honorable mention. Against the Aggies this season, Walker put up an average of 12.0 points, 1.0 rebounds and 1.5 assists.
“Walker is a tremendous player,” Odom said. “He’s capable of scoring big numbers. He’s really good in pick-and-roll. He’s good at posting up.”
Another Falcon to watch for is guard Ethan Taylor. This season he has averaged 8.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 35.1 minutes. Against the Aggies, Taylor was limited to an average of 3.5 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 18.5 minutes. This is due to foul trouble in the first contest and an injury in the second matchup.
“Taylor didn’t really play much in either game,” Odom said. “He really helps their team. He’s a really good freshman and good player overall.”
Utah State’s focus is set on “disciplined” and “energetic” basketball.
“We have to be the aggressor, without a doubt, on both sides of the ball,” Odom said. “We’re going to have to be energetic on both sides of the ball… All in all, looking forward to the game and I think our guys will be ready.”
Odom knows this will not be easy, especially because of the stamina required against the Falcons on defense.
“When you play against Air Force you know you have to be ready to guard for the entire clock,” Odom said.
On the injury front, things are looking up for the Aggies. Guards Steven Ashworth and Brock Miller will both “get minutes.” Guard Rylan Jones will start in Ashworth’s place like how Utah State started the season.
“Steven will kind of go back to that sixth man, energizer guy for us and he’s excited about that,” Odom said.
As for the style of the tournament, the Aggies have “been through it before already” with the Myrtle Beach Invitational. The team was crowned champions of that multi-team event.
“It takes a lot of effort because everybody wants the same thing when you get to these tournaments,” Odom said. “You can’t worry about what’s on the other side of it because it might be nothing. Every team is going to give their best effort in this tournament, in every tournament because you know what you’re playing for.”
The performance and capabilities of Mountain West teams make Odom think there is no clear favorite to win the tournament this year.
“Top to bottom it’s as deep as it’s probably ever been,” Odom said. “I think you will see some really close games.”
Tip-off for the Aggies is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. MST. The action will be broadcast on the Mountain West Network.