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Utah State and Southern Utah riding record-breaking win streaks and 3 other takeaways from the week in college basketball

The Aggies have won eight games in a row, while the T-Birds are in the midst of a program-best nine game win streak

SHARE Utah State and Southern Utah riding record-breaking win streaks and 3 other takeaways from the week in college basketball
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In this Dec. 23, 2020 file photo, San Jose State guard Seneca Knight (13) has his shot blocked by Utah State center Trevin Dorius (32) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Logan, Utah. Utah State is in the midst of an eight game win streak that includes the Aggies’ best ever start to Mountain West Conference play.

Eli Lucero, The Herald Journal via AP

The 2020-21 men’s college basketball season continued this past week (some might consider that a miracle in itself), and it was a very good seven days for a couple of programs in Utah, although not so much for a few others.

Utah State and Southern Utah are in the midst of record-breaking win streaks, while BYU is basically where it has always been since joining the West Coast Conference. As for Utah, things are not going all that well up on the hill, but it could be worse. The Utes are playing, unlike Weber State and Dixie State.

The Wildcats had two more games canceled this week — 46% of Weber State’s games have been canceled this season — while the Trailblazers haven’t played a game since Dec. 29, 2020.

Here are five takeaways from the latest in the Beehive State and around the country.

Utah State is one of the best in the Mountain West

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Utah State guard Brock Miller (22) brings the ball down court as San Jose State forward Chase Courtney (40) defends during an NCAA college basketball game Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, in Logan.

Eli Lucero, The Herald Journal via Associated Press

The Aggies just keep winning. And winning. And winning some more.

USU is currently on an eight-game win streak, a run that includes six consecutive victories in Mountain West Conference play.

That 6-0 start against conference opponents is Utah State’s best ever start as a member of the MWC, not to mention the program’s best undefeated start in league play since the 2010-11 season, when the Aggies started 14-0 in the Western Athletic Conference.

There is more:

  • USU has a positive scoring margin of 33.3 points through its six league games, none of which have been remotely competitive.
  • Four of the Aggies’ six wins have come on the road, most recently a series sweep of New Mexico.
  • Utah State has outrebounded every opponent this season and has finished with double-digit rebounds on the offensive glass 10 times already this year.

Needless to say, the Aggies have come a long way since their last setback, a 67-64 loss to BYU, and are now one of only two remaining unbeaten teams in the MWC, along with Boise State.

There are challenges ahead, specifically San Diego State and Colorado State, and the Aggies aren’t lighting up the world when it comes to the NCAA’s all-powerful NET rankings, but for the moment USU is playing about as well it possibly can, and as well as any other MWC team.

“We are 6-0 and took care of business like we needed to,” USU coach Craig Smith told the Herald Journal. “Four of those are road wins, which is nice. We just need to keep climbing the ladder and keep getting better because we can still grow.”

Southern Utah’s start has been special

The same can be said for SUU, but in the Big Sky Conference.

The T-Birds are in the midst of an even longer win streak than Utah State, having won nine straight games. That is a new school record, besting the six straight games SUU won at the end of the 2016-17 season.

“It’s hard to win one Division I game,” SUU coach Todd Simon told The Spectrum. “We’ve been on the other side of searching for wins, and so we don’t take these for granted.”

Thanks to the streak, Southern Utah (4-0) is tied for first place in the Big Sky, along with Sacramento State (2-0), Montana State (2-0) and Eastern Washington (1-0).

Heading into the season, SUU was picked to finish sixth in the conference, behind each of the aforementioned teams, save Sacramento State. Those rankings didn’t seem outlandish then given recent history — SUU was 17-15 overall in 2020, 17-17 in 2019 and 13-19 in 2018 — but it appears that the T-Birds have taken the next step as a program.

The T-Birds offense has been the main reason for the team’s success thus far. SUU has scored 845 points this season, an average of 84.5 points per game, compared to 686 (68.6 ppg) by its opponents. SUU has an average margin of victory of 15.9 ppg.

That idea will be put to the test this week, when Southern Utah takes on preseason favorite Eastern Washington, but the T-Birds have already exceeded expectations.

BYU has a ways to go to catch up to Gonzaga

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Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs (1) shoots next to BYU guard Brandon Averette (4) during the first half of a college basketball game in Spokane, Wash., Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021. 

Young Kwak, Associated Press

Entering the season, there were some who hoped that this would be the year BYU could finally catch up with Gonzaga.

After all, BYU split the season series with the ’Zags a year ago, and since joining the WCC, the Cougars have made it almost a yearly tradition to upset the Bulldogs at least once a season.

The next step for BYU was to get on the same level as Gonzaga, at least every now and then, not unlike what Saint Mary’s has done over the last decade.

After defeating San Diego State earlier this season, it looked like BYU might possibly have a chance against Gonzaga, even as the Bulldogs became the clear No. 1 team in the country.

As evidenced by Gonzaga’s dominant 86-69 victory over BYU last week, however, the Cougars still have some work do. BYU was uncompetitive in the loss — in fairness, the Cougars played hard the full 40 minutes and made the game appear closer than it actually was — and was simply outclassed by the best team in college basketball.

Afterward, BYU coach Mark Pope told the Deseret News that the Bulldogs are a “generational team” this year, and that the loss gives the Cougars something to shoot for going forward.

“I’m really excited about getting this out of the way, the first game of conference, because it shows clearly and glaringly some areas where we have to get massively better. You like that,” he said. “It gives you a benchmark that’s real and tangible that you can shoot for and work toward every day. I have a locker room full of guys that will do that.”

How many wins are left on the schedule for Utah?

Utah is in a tailspin right now. After starting the season 4-1, the Utes have lost four consecutive games, all in Pac-12 play.

There have been close calls to be sure, against UCLA and more recently against Oregon, but the Utes haven’t won a game in nearly a month (their last win was on Dec. 18, 2020, against Idaho).

It can be argued Utah’s last four losses have come against the best the Pac-12 has to offer — UCLA, USC, No. 22 Oregon and Colorado are a combined 35-9 this year, 15-3 in conference play — but the Utes have lost in almost every way imaginable.

Against Colorado on Monday it was free-throw shooting. Against Oregon it was turnovers. In every recent defeat, something new has doomed the Utes, though they tend to blow halftime leads and are almost always outrebounded.

“With this team, every little thing is a big thing,” coach Larry Krystkowiak told the Deseret News after the loss to the Buffaloes. “We shoot a normal free-throw percentage, I don’t know, maybe (we win). I think it is a different game. … We just gotta keep moving forward, keep grinding.”

Given their struggles, are there games left to win on the Utes’ schedule going forward?

Stanford is next and the Cardinal are the third-best team in the conference right now. After that are matchups with Cal, Washington State and Washington, and Utah might be considered a favorite against the Bears and Huskies.

Lose those games, though, and Utah could be looking at maybe one or two wins the rest of the season: Feb. 6 against Arizona State and Feb. 18 against Oregon State.

The latest NET rankings favor the Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC

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Tennessee guard Jaden Springer (11) tries to drive past Texas A&M guard Andre Gordon (20) during the second half of a college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 9, 2021, in College Station, Texas.

Sam Craft, Associated Press

Since NET rankings have replaced RPI as the definitive tool for determining which teams will make the NCAA tournament, it is worth looking at them on a weekly basis, if not more regularly than that.

Sometimes the rankings change significantly, as was the case with BYU and Utah State. The Cougars jumped 11 spots after the loss to Gonzaga, while the Aggies improved 25 spots — from 85 to 60 — after sweeping New Mexico.

The rankings favor three conferences in particular, though — the Big Ten, the Big 12 and the SEC.

The Big Ten has five teams in the top 25 in the rankings: Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Ohio State. The first four of those are all top 10 teams.

The Big 12, meanwhile, has four team in the top 25, headlined by No. 2 Baylor, but also Texas, Kansas and Texas Tech.

The SEC is the big surprise with four top 25 teams, including No. 3 Tennessee, plus Arkansas, LSU and Missouri.

The highest ranked WCC team is No. 1 Gonzaga, while the highest ranked MWC team is No. 19 Boise State. As for the Pac-12, Colorado comes in at No. 11. Eastern Washington leads the Big Sky at No. 131.

Utah is No. 110 after its loss to Colorado, while Southern Utah is 148. Other in-state schools are as follows:

  • Weber State — 151.
  • Utah Valley — 224.
  • Dixie State — 259.