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Utah State looking to open conference play with another victory over San Jose State

Utah State Aggies guard Koby McEwen (1) drives on Brigham Young Cougars guard Jahshire Hardnett (0) in Logan on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017. BYU won 75-66.
Utah State Aggies guard Koby McEwen (1) drives on Brigham Young Cougars guard Jahshire Hardnett (0) in Logan on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017. BYU won 75-66.
Jeffrey D. Allred,

LOGAN – The Utah State basketball team emerged from non-conference play – somewhat miraculously – with a winning record.

But even though the Aggies (7-6) have been hit hard by an incredible rash of injuries during the first two months of the 2017-18 season, that doesn’t mean that head coach Tim Duryea is happy with where his team is at heading its Mountain West opener Wednesday night against San Jose State (3-8).

“We’ve had so many things that we’ve dealt with that we are not the well-oiled machine we would like to be going into conference,” Duryea said. “Usually, you’ll have an eight- or nine-man rotation that you have settled in, and your system is where you want it to be offensively and defensively. We’ve done a pretty good job, but we’re not where we could be if we would have had everyone available to us during the preseason. Our roles would be a little more defined, and out would be a little more comfortable with what we are doing.

“… To say we are where we want to be would probably be wishful thinking. We probably would like to be a little further down the road in terms of win-loss record, and in our comfort level of who we are and who we are playing.”

Currently sitting seventh place in the Mountain West, the Aggies are looking up at UNLV (11-2), Boise State (10-2), Nevada (11-3), Fresno State (10-3), San Diego State (8-3) and Wyoming (9-4).

Following Wednesday’s game against the Spartans, who have dropped 20 straight contests to the Aggies, Utah State will travel to San Diego to take on the Aztecs Saturday night. The Aggies will then host Fresno State on Jan. 3, before traveling to Las Vegas to take on the surprising Rebels who have undergone a surprising transformation after finishing 4-14 in league play last year and 11-21 overall.

UNLV humbled Utah, 85-58, on Nov. 22, and the Rebels’ only two losses came in overtime on the road at Northern Iowa (77-68) and at home to Arizona (91-88).

“The teams that we thought were going to be good have shown that. They’ve had some key wins,” Duryea said. “Our league has done a good job in the non-conference in representing themselves.”

Although the Spartans are sitting on the bottom of the conference standings heading into Wednesday’s game at the Spectrum, Duryea thinks that first-year coach Jean Prioleau has San Jose State heading in the right direction. And after losing five straight ballgames, the Spartans did upend Santa Clara, 75-63, on the road on Dec. 21.

Junior forward Ryan Welage led the way with 21 points in that game, and is the only Spartan currently averaging double figures at 18.0 points per game.

“This is a different San Jose State team,” Duryea noted. “They are a group that believes in what they are doing. They are a group that believes in the process because they play with a lot of enthusiasm and togetherness and are really getting better.”

As are the Aggies, at least physically. Duryea said that senior forward Alex Dargenton practiced on Christmas Day and is expected to play after spraining an ankle and missing the past two games. And a handful of players who were battling illnesses have also improved since USU’s last game on Dec. 20.

What the Aggies really need, however, is some improved play from sophomore point guard Koby McEwen, who has been trying to overcome a high-ankle sprain since mid-November and was under the weather the past two games.

Although he battled his way to 20 points in USU’s win over Life Pacific on Dec. 16, McEwen fouled out of the loss to Utah without scoring a point on Dec. 9, and scored just seven points before fouling out after just 16 minutes in the Youngstown State game.

“The one word for him in the preseason is ‘inconsistent’ – in the number of minutes he’s played and the guys that have played with him.” Duryea said of McEwen. “But he’s still a young player. He is just going into conference play of his sophomore year. He is still getting better. He is still learning.

“He still needs to improve on a few things, but we have to have him be a really good player. We need him to be an all-conference player for us to be the team we want to be.”