GAME NOTES: A pair of teams with identical conference records take part in the opening round of the 15th annual Mountain West Conference Tournament, as the Colorado State Rams and the Utah State Aggies battle at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
Eighth-seeded Utah State is not accustomed to being so far down in the pecking order when it comes to conference tournament play, having won a total of eight tourney titles (six as a member of the Big West and two in the Western Athletic), but this is the first year in the MWC for the Aggies. One of the most successful programs in college basketball over the last decade, USU was all over the map in terms of consistency, or lack thereof, this season.
However, on a positive note, the Aggies did close out the regular season with consecutive wins over San Jose State and Wyoming.
As for the ninth-seeded Rams, champions of this event back in 2003 when they defeated UNLV, they have a record in the tournament of 9-13 and have not made it back to the title game in the last decade. This season the squad was up- and-down, winning just two times in the final seven games on the schedule, with one of those victories coming against a woeful San Jose State group.
The relationship between these two teams dates back to the 1925-26 campaign and is under the control of the Aggies who own a 54-35 edge. Utah State swept a pair of regular-season meetings, posting a 57-50 win in Logan in the middle of January and then handing the Rams a 71-62 setback a month later in Fort Collins.
The survivor of today's battle will be back in action on Thursday in the quarterfinals versus top-seeded and nationally-ranked San Diego State.
The Rams have four players who started all 31 games during the regular season, with J.J. Avila with 16.8 ppg, although Daniel Bejarano pushed him hard with 16.7 ppg. Avila, who was named to the All-MWC Third Team, led the group with 109 assists and was second on the glass with 7.5 rpg, while Bejarano accounted for another 99 assists and 8.4 rpg. Bejarano, a member of the All-MWC Second Team, knocked down a team-best 61 3-pointers, but that didn't exactly make up for the fact that he shot just 37.4 percent from the floor overall. As a whole, Colorado State delivered 73.5 ppg, but in allowing opponents to connect on 36.8 percent beyond the arc, the highest in the league, the Rams saw their scoring advantage come in a little under four points per contest.
The Aggies got off on the right foot in 2013-14 with five straight wins and victories in 10 of the first 12 outings, but their consistency was challenged over the final two months as they came in under .500 in conference play. USU managed to lead the league in 3-point shooting at 40.7 percent, but still victories were not always easy to come by.
Spencer Butterfield (13.3 ppg) and Preston Medlin (12.6 ppg) both connected on 67 attempts from 3-point range, the former also clearing 6.2 rpg, while the latter handed out a team-high 125 assists. Jarred Shaw, who was named All-MWC Honorable Mention with Butterfield, finished as the top scorer in terms of average with 14.4 ppg and was also first with 8.5 rpg, even as he missed some games during the campaign.
You can be sure that Bejarano will be cranked up for this meeting, hoping to return the favor from both of those losses to USU during the season. However, the Rams are not the most disciplined group, which is something that should certainly work in favor of Aggies today.
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