Utah State opens MW tournament against healthier Fresno State – Cache Valley Daily

Utah State’s Darius Brown II drives against Fresno State’s Isaac Taveras during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Fresno, Calif., Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Gary Kazanjian)

LOGAN – Utah State’s opener in the Mountain West Tournament will be against a team it’s both dominated and struggled against: Fresno State.

In the first meeting, the Aggies rolled by 21 points at home on Jan. 20. In the second, on Feb. 27, USU needed a last-second three from Darius Brown to force overtime where victory was eventually achieved. The latter game is an easy avenue to ensure Utah State doesn’t overlook its opponent, but head coach Danny Sprinkle believes his team isn’t overlooking anyone regardless.

“They have our guys’ respect,” Sprinkle said. “Everybody in the league has all year. And you don’t go 14-4 if you’re overlooking people. Our guys have done a great job of that. They know how talented (Fresno State’s) guards are and their bigs. They know how much we have to clean up.”

Fresno State will maintain its trend of looking different each time the Aggies face it. In the Feb. 27 road game, the Bulldogs were missing nearly all of its rostered bigmen, but this time will have Enoch Boakye back on the floor, alongside wing Donavan Yap.

The presence of a big will allow FSU to not play perpetual small-ball as it did on Feb. 27, but there will still be a lot of smaller lineups with wing Leo Colimerio playing center and a contingent of ball-handling guards and wings surrounding him.

Of interest for Utah State on the injury front is the fact that redshirt freshman guard Mason Falslev will not play as he sits with an undisclosed injury. He’s been banged up the last couple of games for the Aggies but has still played. It’s possible he will sit and rest in preparation for what would otherwise be a tough potential three-games-in-three-days stretch.

No matter which lineups Fresno State throws out there, big or small, USU forward Great Osobor should be able to find plenty of chances to score if the Aggies are on their game. Osobor scored 20-plus point in both games against Fresno with double-doubles on both occasions as well. The Bulldogs will be gunning for new ways to stop Osobor, though, which will likely feature plenty of double and even triple teams.

The other side of the small-ball is how the Aggies will defend it, likely with fewer minutes for Isaac Johnson and Kalifa Sakho and more for Josh Uduje and Javon Jackson. Even with the ability to match the Bulldogs with smaller lineups and still have Osobor on the floor, it’s tough to guard a five-out lineup, especially with the likes of Isaiah Hill, Xavier DuSell and Isaiah Pope.

Those three are the team’s leading scorers and effective perimeter players on offense. Hill and Pope combined for 36 points in the Feb. 27 game, a stark contrast to the mere 21 the two combined to manage on Jan. 20 and a telling difference in a pair of games that had very different feelings to them.

“Hill’s a tremendous point guard. He’s hurt us both times we’ve played him. He’s a great ball screen player. Pope had a tremendous game against us last time, and I know he played really well (against Wyoming) from what I hear. They’re just dynamic, and they’re aggressive and athletic and fast to it. So you have to be really careful.”

Hill especially can be dangerous as he’s both a scoring and passing threat. He had only five points in the first matchup but 10 assists. And in the second matchup, he 21 points and three assists.

Perhaps even more crucial to the different paths both USU/FSU matchups went was the Aggies’ turnovers. On Feb. 27, Utah State had 17 turnovers, by far a season high. It marred an offensive performance that was otherwise quite efficient (they shot 52 percent from the field and 40 percent from three).

“Sloppy play on our part,” Sprinkle said. “We have to do a lot better job taking care of the ball.”

The Aggies are favored to win by double digits, and a quality performance should facilitate that. But games in the tournament have already gone differently than expected. Wyoming held a nine-point lead over these same Bulldogs late in their first-round matchup but Fresno State rallied late to come away with a win. And Colorado State had to fend off San Jose State, with that game tied with five minutes remaining before the Rams closed out the game to slam the door on the upset-minded Spartans.

Projected Starters

Utah State: 26-5

  • G — Darius Brown (6-2, Sr.) – 12.2 points | 4.3 rebounds | 6.3 assists
  • G — Ian Martinez (6-3, Jr.) – 13.0 points | 3.8 rebounds | 1.7 assists
  • G — Josh Uduje (6-5, Jr.) – 8.8 points | 2.6 rebounds | 1.0 assists
  • F — Great Osobor (6-8, Jr.) – 17.5 points | 8.9 rebounds | 2.9 assists
  • C — Isaac Johnson (7-0, So.) – 6.3 points | 3.1 rebounds | 0.9 assists

Fresno State: 12-20

  • G — Isaiah Hill (6-0, Sr.) — 11.8 points | 3.2 rebounds | 6.0 assists
  • G — Xavier DuSell (6-4, Jr.) — 11.6 points | 2.1 rebounds | 0.5 assists
  • G — Isaiah Pope (6-5, Sr.) – 9.1 points | 3.4 rebounds | 1.5 assists
  • G — Leo Colimerio (6-7, Sr.) – 6.6 points | 3.8 rebounds | 1.2 assists
  • C — Enoch Boakye (6-10, Jr.) – 7.8 points | 7.9 rebounds | 0.4 assists

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