2023 Mountain West Conference Tourney: New Mexico vs. Utah State

 Game Preview: New Mexico vs. Utah State

Utah State look to put away New Mexico for second time this season and advance. 

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New Mexico and Utah State meet for only the second time this season. But with so much on the line. 

WHO: No. 3 seed Utah  (24-7, 13-5 T-2nd place in the MWC) vs. No. 6 seed New Mexico (22-10, 9-10 6th in the MWC)

WHEN: February 9th, 2023-9:30 PM MT/8:30 PM PT

WHERE: Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas, NV

Stream:  CBS Sports or get a free trial on FuboTV

Odds:  Aggies are favored by 2 points, per KenPom

The Mountain West Conference has experienced a resurgence on the national stage this past season. Ranked ahead of of the ACC in the KenPom conference rankings and on the heels of the Pac-12. Competition in the conference is at an all time high.

Thursday’s late night matchup between the No. 3 seed Utah State Aggies and a revenge seeking No. 6 seed New Mexico Lobos squad should be a prime example of that.

Last Time Out

These programs only met on the hardwood once this season. That being a 84-73 Aggie win over a red hot Lobo team in Logan back on February 1st.

Utah State had four players reach double figures in that one. As Richard Pitino’s group learned just how hard the Aggies are to beat inside the Dee Smith Spectrum (a record of 14-2 at home this season).

Utah State was led by a player with a familiar last name for Lobo fans, Sean Bairstow. Yes, the little brother of former Lobo great Cameron Bairstow in the early 2010s. The 6-8 guard and mismatch nightmare dropped 20 points and grabbed five rebounds to help his team secure the win over a quality Lobo squad at home.

New Mexico 

Now the Lobos are out for revenge. Or maybe more of a convincing win to show onlookers of the conference, they are as dangerous as ever. With wins over some of the conference’s best and maybe the best non-conference performance this season, New Mexico is the dark horse candidate everyone doesn’t want to see on their side of the bracket this week.

After a come from behind 87-76 win over a pesky Wyoming squad in the first round on Wednesday afternoon. The Lobos are riding high on their winning momentum and when hot, can beat any team in the Mountain West.

They play their best basketball when their three-headed attack of Jaelen House, Jamal Mashburn Jr. & Morris Udeze catch fire. While playing at a high tempo full of fast breaks and points in the paint.

Utah State

The Aggies haven’t missed a beat in the post Craig Smith era in Logan. Ryan Odom came over from UMBC after success in the big dance. And in just year two, has Utah State back in the title race conversation. They do so, with arguably the best offense in the Mountain West.

They have five players averaging double figures, the unanimous Mountain West 6th Man of the Year in Dan Akin and shoot the three ball at a high rate.

The Lobos also have one of the best offenses in the conference, but the Aggies themselves have the depth and know how to get the ball to whichever hand is the hottest every night. A program this bought into playing team basketball can beat anybody any given night.

Players to Watch

New Mexico: Sr. G Jaelen House

Jaelen House showed last night just how much he can impact the floor for New Mexico. The 6-0 floor general is usually sparking fast breaks off turnovers, disrupting ball movement at the top of the arc all while putting points on the board to the tune of 28 points, 7 rebounds & 6 assists in Wednesdays win over Wyoming.

When House is hot, the Lobos are hot and his 17.1 PPG, 4.8 APG, 4.0 RPG & 2.6 SPG show the damage he can do when healthy and hungry for his team to succeed. Four games in four days is a lot to ask of a player like House, who makes folks watching him at home tired from his style of play. But he is also mentally driven to win. Which can be the x-factor for an upset Thursday night.

Utah State: Jr. G Steven Ashworth

The Alpine, UT native has taken charge of leading this surging Aggies program. Like several local high scoring guards before him, Ashworth, who was named to the all-conference first team yesterday. Is the offensive catalyst on the conference’s best offensive team.

The 6-1 floor general is averaging 16.3 PPG, 4.7 APG, 3.4 RPG & 1.1 SPG while shooting 46.7% from the floor, a whopping 45.0% from deep and a marvelous 88.9% from the charity stripe.

Not to mention a mere 1.5 turnovers a game as the team’s leading scorer and facilitator.

If the rest from the Aggies’ first round bye has done Ashworth well and he brought his A game to Vegas, I see him in the title game with San Diego State on Saturday.

Prediction: Utah State 80, New Mexico 75

I would love to see the Lobos make the Thomas and Mack Center the “Pit West” again by cutting down the nets on Saturday. But with such a reliance on their three leading scorers and such a short bench. It would take a poor performance from several of Utah State’s players and a perfect defensive effort by New Mexico to secure the upset.

I think the fight and energy the Lobos displayed in the first round keeps it close. But with rest and so much fire power on Coach Odom’s squad, I see them advancing for a showdown with the team they tied for second in the regular season with.

Larry Muniz covers college basketball as a writer for Mountain West Wire and WAC Hoops Digest. Also as a co-host of the college basketball podcast “Hoops Talk W/Jay & Larry”. He is also a USWBA Member.

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Story originally appeared on Mountain West Wire