Aggies on the road again, face big challenge against New Mexico in The Pit – Cache Valley Daily

Utah State is on the road again, taking its NCAA-leading 15-game winning streak and putting it on the line against New Mexico in The Pit. And for all the struggles USU (16-1) faced on the road at UNLV on Saturday, this test could prove much tougher for the Aggies.

The Lobos (14-3) have been up-and-down in conference play with two wins and two losses. Those results have perfectly coincided with playing on the road vs playing at home. New Mexico lost at Colorado State in its Mountain West opener and then at UNLV. The two victories were a 17-point win over Wyoming and, more recently and much more impressively, an 18-point beatdown of then-No. 19 San Diego State.

New Mexico has not lost at home this season, being a perfect 9-0 in games at the Pit and outscoring opponents by an average of nearly 22 points in those nine outings.

Sprinkle said his team can try and use its own experiences playing in the Spectrum to better adjust to the environment at The Pit.

“We see it every night at the Spectrum. We’ve played when it’s loud,” Sprinkle said. “We’ve got to use our experience playing our home games. Now, obviously they’re not gonna be cheering for us. But we’ve been in environments like that.”

The Pit isn’t the only thing powering this team as the Lobos boast one of the most impressive guard rotations in the conference, starting (but certainly not ending) with two preseason All-Mountain West selections, Jamal Mashburn and Jaelen House (Mashburn earned First Team All-MW at the end of last year while House was Second Team). Sophomore guard Donovan Dent has had a breakout year, increasing his scoring output by nearly 10 points per game in his second year at New Mexico. Then there’s Fresno State transfer Jemarl Baker and freshman Tru Washington who both provide key scoring off the bench.

Add it all up and these five guards account for just under 60 percent of the Lobos’ points this season. In four games of conference play, the five have combined for 47.6 points per game.

“They might have the best five guard rotation in the league to be honest,” Sprinkle said. “Any of them can go for 30.”

The Lobos aren’t completely guard-dependent, though, as they’ve been blessed with the top freshman in the league so far in forward JT Toppin to pair with Iona transfer Nelly Junior Joseph. The pair combine to average 21.2 points, 15.9 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game.

“They’re good, they’re really athletic. They play well together. They do a great job of passing to each other and finishing at the rim,” Sprinkle said of the two forwards.

Defense is something New Mexico has struggled with the last two years, with the Lobos relying on high-powered offense to plow through teams but often giving up lots of points in the process (last year UNM ranked 12th in points for and 298th in points against, similar story in 2021-22 where they ranked 89th and 320th in those to categories, respectively). This year that’s changed as the Lobos have a far more respectable defense.

Two major elements of that improvement are an increase in turnovers forced and an uptick in rim protection. Last year, the Lobos averaged a decent 12.7 turnovers forced per game and have upped that to 16.1 this year. House has kept up his penchant for steals he’s had the last three years at UNM as he’s currently sitting at 2.7 steals per game which leads the Mountain West. But as a team, New Mexico has gone from decent to elite in the number of turnovers forced and it’s something Sprinkle has made a key to the game.

“You can’t turn a ball over against them,” Sprinkle said. “They’re too fast, too athletic. They’re super active defensively, especially in the gaps, getting rakes and trying to get steals. You guys have seen House before, he’s a menace on the ball. And so we have to do a great job taking care of the basketball and making sure we’re getting shots on the rim every time.”

The second aspect to that improvement, rim protection, hasn’t become elite are only average in field goal percentage at the rim, but it’s still a significant improvement from last year where New Mexico ranked 266th in field goal percentage allowed at the rim. That improvement alone has played a big role in improving the Lobos’ defensive 2-point field goal percentage which has jumped from ranking 202nd last year up to 82nd this year. Toppin and Joseph have a lot to do with that improvement as newcomers to the team and the aforementioned 2.9 blocks per game between them.

Multiple coaches on Sprinkle’s staff have recent ties to New Mexico and its current coach, Richard Pitino. Assistant coaches Andy Hill and Eric Brown were both on Pitino’s staff for his first year as head coach of the Lobos. Hill only spent one year at New Mexico, joining Sprinkle’s staff at Montana State for the 2022-23 season while Brown spent a second season under Pitino, helping the Lobos jump from a 13-19 record in ’21-22 to a 22-12 record the following season. Both Hill and Brown were brought to Utah State this past offseason to form part of Sprinkle’s staff.

The ties between the USU and UNM coaching staffs form an interesting tidbit, but likely nothing more and certainly not some notable advantage as Sprinkle would note.

“We know all UNLV’s plays. We know Colorado States plays. We know New Mexico’s. They know ours too,” Sprinkle said. “And so I don’t know how much of an advantage that is. We’re not doing anything crazy. We’re not changing anything. We have to go be us, especially with, really a two-day prep.”

Pitino is winless against the Aggies in his two-and-a-half season tenure, 0-4 to be exact. In fact, USU has won six straight against the Lobos, although only one of those games was played at The Pit. That lone game was a 90-87 win in overtime for the Aggies. All other matchups in that six-game span were either played at the Spectrum, in the Mountain West Conference Tournament, or at a neutral site in Texas during the COVID-impacted 2020-21 season (New Mexico played its designated home games at various neutral sites that season due to state restrictions on sporting events).

Projected Starters

Utah State (16-1)

  • G – Darius Brown (6-2, Sr.) – 10.6 points | 3.5 rebounds | 7.4 assists
  • G – Mason Falslev (6-3, Fr.) – 11.5 points | 4.4 rebounds | 2.8 assists
  • G – Ian Martinez (6-3, Jr.) – 13.1 points | 3.3 rebounds | 1.6 assists
  • F – Great Osobor (6-8, Jr.) – 18.9 points | 9.6 rebounds | 2.8 assists
  • C – Isaac Johnson (7-0, So.) – 6.5 points | 2.8 rebounds | 0.9 assists

New Mexico (14-3)

  • G — Jaelen House (6-1, Sr.) — 15.7 points | 3.3 rebounds | 4.1 assists
  • G – Donovan Dent (6-2, So.) – 15.1 points | 2.9 rebounds | 5.9 assists
  • G – Jamal Mashburn (6-2, Sr.) – 16.5 points | 2.2 rebounds | 1.4 assists
  • F – JT Toppin (6-9, Fr.) – 12.8 points | 8.1 rebounds | 0.6 assists
  • F – Nelly Junior Joseph (6-9, Jr.) – 8.4 points | 7.8 rebounds | 1.2 assists

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