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Nevada Basketball opponent preview and prediction: Utah State Aggies

NCAA Basketball: Utah State at Colorado State Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Nevada Wolf Pack play host to the Utah State Aggies on Saturday, Jan. 29 at Lawlor Events Center in Reno, Nev.

Both teams have had rocky-ish starts to its conference slate, though you could argue the Aggies have fared better despite the worse record.

Utah State, 11-9 with a 2-5 conference record, is fresh of snapping a four-game skid on Wednesday, handing San Diego State their worse loss of the season with the 75-57 victory. It’s five conference losses have come by a combined 19 points, including three by one possession. That doesn’t feel like a sustainable trend for Utah State, who ranks No. 61 in the NET Rankings and No. 54 in the Ken Pom rankings (at the time of publishing).

Nevada, who’s No. 120 and No. 105 in such rankings, respectively, enters off a 77-66 loss at Colorado State, scoring once on its final 11 possessions with three turnovers after the game was knotted at 63 with 6:03 to go. The Wolf Pack are an even 3-3 in Mountain West play and 9-8 overall.

Both programs have had trouble closing games this year, though the Aggies have beaten formidable opponents in Oklahoma and New Mexico State, among others; Utah State currently sits 5-7 in Quad 1 or 2 games, so it’s definitely more battled tested than Nevada, who’s 2-7 in such games.

Can Nevada, who’s lost four straight against the Aggies, pull off the upset on Saturday? Let’s dig into the matchup and find out!

Matchup: Nevada (9-8, 3-3) vs. Utah State (11-9, 2-5)

When: Saturday, Jan. 29 at 7:00 p.m. PT

Where: Lawlor Events Center in Reno, Nev.

TV/Online: CBS Sports Network || https://www.cbssports.com/cbs-sports-network/

Spread: Nevada -1

Money line: Nevada -120, Utah State EVEN

Last Meeting: Utah State won 87-66 (Feb. 28, 2021)

Matchup History: Utah State leads 39-23

Breakdown:

While it’s been magnified over Mountain West play, Utah State’s success this season has largely depended on its 3-point shooting.

In its win over SDSU, it shot 10-of-24 from 3-point range — good enough for a 41.7 3-point percentage. It also marked the 8th time it’s hit 10 or more threes all season — which it’s gone 7-1 in such games.

In its previous six games (five losses), the Aggies shot a combined 19.3 percent from beyond the arc; it bears reminding that in that 1-5 conference stretch, their five losses came by a combined 19 points. Woof.

Over its nine total losses, the Aggies are shooting just 24.5 percent from distance; in wins, the figure bloats to a staggering 41.5 percent. Needless to say, their success will be predicated on their efficiency from beyond the arc.

Justin Bean, a Mountain West player of the year candidate, leads the Aggies with 18.5 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. He’s the only Mountain West player to post double-double averages, notching double-figure boards in 13 of his 20 such games.

The senior has been completely 180’d his efficiency from distance; he’s knocking down 48.9 percent of his triples on fairly low volume (2.4 3PA) after shooting a combined 24.7 percent across his first three seasons with a-third of the volume (0.8 3PA).

His true-shooting (64.6%) and effective field goal (61.4%) percentage blow previous marks out of the water while also sporting a career-best 28.4 player efficiency rating (PER). Bean’s also recording a team-high 1.8 steals and is third in assists (2.4 apg).

Brandon Horvath and Sean Bairstow, who was recently inserted into the starting five due to Brock Miller’s lingering back injury, are their only other double figure scorers.

Bairstow’s averaging 10.0 points, though nearly all of his point production is exclusively from inside the arc. He’s shooting 48.0 percent from the floor and 67.2 percent from inside-the-paint, where he attempts nearly 60 percent of his shots. He’s also totaling 2.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists and a steal per game.

Since his insertion into the starting five, Bairstow’s tallied 12.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 steals per game on 47.5 percent shooting from the floor and 85.7 percent from the free-throw line. Against Colorado State on Jan. 12, Bairstow recorded career highs in points (20) and steals (4) on 8-of-15 shooting.

Horvath has been one of Utah State’s most efficient 3-point shooters (when he takes them), knocking down 38.2 percent of his 3-point shots on 3.4 triple tries per contest. He’s averaging 12.2 points on 49.5 perent shooting with 6.1 boards — second to only Bean — and 2.3 assists.

Nevada’s Grant Sherfield, also outside-looking-in on the conference’s player of the year award, has inarguably been one of the Mountain West’s most productive point guards (again), posting 19.2 points, 4.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists — remaining the only player across Division-I with a 19-point, 6-assist stat line.

His slitheriness and awareness allows him to get to his spots while generating offense for others, despite the inconsistent team-play throughout the team’s first 17 games. Sherfield’s shooting 44.2 percent from the floor, including 37.5 percent from distance and 86.7 percent from the free-throw line, a top-3 mark in the Mountain West.

Desmond Cambridge is re-kindling his beginning-of-the-season shooting form after hitting a bit of a wall, piecing together a game-high 23 points on 9-of-19 shooting with four 3s in its 11-point loss to Colorado State. The 6-foot-4 guard, who’s averaging 15.8 points this season, has notched six 20-point games with 11 games of 15-plus points.

7-footer Will Baker rests third in the team in scoring at 11.6 points per game, knocking down a team-high 45.0 percent of his triples (among qualifiers), in addition to his 5.5 rebounds per game. With the conflicting reports of Warren Washington’s availability on Saturday because of a right hand injury suffered on Tuesday, Baker’s role will likely increase and be magnified over the next few games.

Prediction:

As I hinted at above, this game will largely come down to 3-point shooting — frankly, from both sides. Nevada’s struggled to shoot the ball well from deep of late, which I wrote more about here, has also hindered its offensive ceiling. When the Wolf Pack offense is humming, their making 3s, and vice versa — though that could be said about virtually every other program, including Utah State. Assuming Washington doesn’t play, mitigating Bean’s impact becomes that much tougher, though the Pack possess requisite wings — namely Kenan Blackshear and Tre Coleman — to challenge Utah State’s stalwart. Utah State hasn’t been on the losing end of many “blowout” games, and I think that trend continues Saturday. This could go either way, but I’m giving the nod to Utah State — as long as it hits 3s — because of their experience and two-way capability. Utah State 78, Nevada 74 (Season record: 12-5)