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Utah State Aggies eye crucial set of games at Boise State this week

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FILE — Utah State head coach Craig Smith, left, greets Utah State’s Marco Anthony during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Utah State, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, in Las Vegas.

John Locher, Associated Press

LOGAN — The biggest Mountain West series of the season isn’t going to be quite the intimate affair it was expected to be.

Just a couple of hours before heading north for Idaho Tuesday afternoon, Utah State head coach Craig Smith got the news that for the first time this season, second-place Boise State (16-4 overall, 12-3 in the Mountain West) will be allowing fans to attend Wednesday and Friday night’s games against the first-place Aggies (14-5, 11-2). 

According to an email sent out by BSU late Tuesday morning, about 900 fans will be permitted inside ExtraMile Arena, which has a capacity of 12,644 spectators. 

“Obviously they’ll be pumped, they’ll be excited,” Smith said of the Broncos, while recalling near-sellout crowds for last year’s games in Boise and Logan. “… It will be different, but exciting for everybody involved. It will probably feel like (900) times ten there. It should be an exciting, spirited atmosphere.”

Wednesday’s game in Boise will mark not only the first time the Broncos have had fans in the stands for a home game this season, but also the first time in the 2020-21 season the Aggies have played a road game in front of an opponent’s fans. Utah State has been the only Mountain West team to accommodate fans at home games the entire season, and the Aggies have averaged 1,479 fans over six games at the Spectrum.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions in Ada County, Boise State attempted to move games against UNLV and Utah State to the Ford Idaho Center in Nampa, which is located in nearby Canyon County. But during a radio interview on 106.9 The Fan on Monday, USU Athletic Director John Hartwell said the Aggies — like the Rebels — refused a change of venue for Wednesday’s game, and less than 24 hours later, Boise State announced that up to 900 fans would be allowed for this week’s games at the Broncos’ on-campus arena. 

Boise State head coach Leon Rice said he found out Tuesday morning that the biggest “crowd” of the season would be cheering on the Broncos, even though that decision technically runs contrary to the local health district’s order to limit gatherings to 50 people or less.

“It adds to the experience, not only for us, but for them,” Rice said of having fans in the stands. “I mean, shoot, there’s nothing better than going on the road and playing in front of fans. It’s awesome. So it absolutely adds to the college basketball experience, and that’s what I’m most excited about.”

While the Broncos are coming off a home sweep of UNLV last week after dropping three of their four previous contests, the Aggies haven’t played a game in nearly two weeks. After winning at Fresno State, 69-53, on Feb. 4, a member of USU’s traveling party tested positive for COVID-19, leading to the postponement of the second game against the Bulldogs. Wyoming, which was supposed to play at the Spectrum on Feb. 10 and 12, then elected not to come to Cache Valley. 

Smith said Utah State probably won’t find out until next week if and when those games might be made up. In anticipation of such an issue, the Mountain West built in a dead week between the end of the regular season and the start of the conference tournament in Las Vegas March 10-13. 

The Aggies are scheduled to finish up their home schedule against fifth-place Nevada on Feb. 26 and 28, but the Wolf Pack (14-7, 9-5) announced on Tuesday that this week’s games against third-place Colorado State (14-4, 11-3) in Reno have been postponed due to positive tests in its program. Nevada also had to postpone its previous series against San Jose State. 

“You’re always trying to stay sharp and avoid rust,” Smith said of his team, which never had to stop practicing during its recent layoff. “I’m sure we’re going to show some rust, but that’s just part of the deal. So we’ll put our best foot forward and see what happens against these guys.”

This week’s doubleheader against the Broncos has been highly anticipated ever since the Aggies completed a sweep of defending champion San Diego State (15-4, 9-3) in mid-January. Both teams were undefeated in league play at the time, but Utah State ended up dropping a home game to the Rams, then losing on the road at UNLV. Shortly afterward, the Broncos lost at Colorado State and were swept by the Wolf Pack in Reno.

Most bracketologists currently have both the Aggies and Broncos in the field of 68 for the NCAA Tournament, but with any games hard to come by right now, a sweep by one program would be a mammoth boast for that team’s postseason chances. 

“We’ve got a golden opportunity in front of us, and Boise State’s got a golden opportunity in front of them,” Smith said. “But anytime we can play a game, it’s truly a golden opportunity.”

Led by Mountain West Preseason Player of the Year Derrick Alston Jr. (17.0 ppg, 49 3-pointers), the Broncos are first in the conference in scoring offense (77.5 ppg) and second in field goal percentage (.463). Senior forward Abu Kigab (12.8 pg, 5.8 rpg) leads BSU in rebounding, while junior Emmanuel Akot (8.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg) is quickly becoming a factor after becoming eligible at the first of the year following a transfer from Arizona.

“Boise State’s an excellent team in every way, shape and form,” Smith noted. “They’ve had a tremendous season in both league play and in nonconference play. They’re very well coached and have incredible talent. I mean, they’re as deep a team as we’ve played all year. And they’re as versatile a team that you’re going to find in the entire country.”

During Tuesday’s virtual press conference, Smith also confirmed that he signed a contract extension with Utah State late last year. Although the Aggies have yet to make an official announcement, Smith said his new deal is for five years more years beyond this season.

“We’re excited about it; we love Utah State,” declared Smith, who is 68-20 in three years at Utah State. “It’s been an amazing place for my family. … It’s been a great move for our family. We love it here. It’s a tremendous league, and we’re surrounded by amazing people. ...

“I’ve been in this profession for a long time, 25 years at every level. … And this has been just a phenomenal place to live and a great experience, so we’re excited to continue this journey at Utah State.”