After losing a close one at New Mexico, Utah State will head to Fresno State and try for a better result on Saturday afternoon. The Aggies are hoping they can find their first conference win in the San Joaquin Valley, the same place they found it last year after an 0-5 start to the Mountain West slate. Fresno State was Utah State’s lone conference victory a season ago.
The Aggies enter this one at 3-12 (0-4), while Fresno State is 9-8 (2-2).
Fresno State is a solidly middling team, touting an even league record and a nearly even overall mark, while checking in at No. 6 in the Mountain West for the NET rankings at No. 215.
The Fresno State offense has been scattered and hasn’t been able to find a rhythm. The Bulldogs have had six leading scorers this season, and a player has led in back-to-back games on only three occasions. To open the season, Taija Santa Maria led the team in back-to-back wins against Fresno Pacific and UC Merced with 12 and 25 points. She did it again later, bolstering the offense in consecutive losses to Cal State Fullerton and Cal Poly with 18 and 16 points. Then, Mia Jacobs led the team with 15 in a win over Sacramento State and 31 in a loss to Arizona State.
For its part, Utah State has been pretty consistently led by one player – Cheyenne Stubbs has helmed the scoring effort in all but three of the team’s 15 games. In the season opener at Cal State Northridge, Bridget Mullings came off the bench and led the team with 17 while Stubbs had eight. Later, against Northern Colorado, Stubbs was held to four points, her season-low, while Skye Miller stepped up and had a team-high of 15. Against Wyoming, when Stubbs was battling illness, she had only five points and the team was led by Macy Smith with nine.
Players To Know
Keely Brown: A veteran presence on this Bulldog team, Brown is the second-leading scorer, averaging 9.5 points per game. She's a junior in her third year with the team, and helps to guide a young squad on the court. On the season, she’s shooting 44.4 percent from deep, and though she's only attempting 2.6 attempts a night, that could be trending upward if she continues to shoot as accurately as she has.
Since beginning Mountain West play, she's gone 7 of 13 (or 54.8 percent) from behind the arc. Her last game, a loss to San Diego State, was her best three-point shooting night of the year with a 3 of 4 performance.
Her presence is already valuable, but if her performance continues to improve, as it has each year, her talent and experience could help solidify the skilled but sometimes rudderless Fresno State team. Brown is also averaging 3.4 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game from her starting spot on the wing.
Mia Jacobs: Jacobs is a sophomore in her first year with the Bulldogs after transferring in from La Salle University. On a team with an ever-changing offensive identity, Jacobs has emerged as a reliable force and found herself as the scoring leader. She's been about as consistent as possible within this sporadic offense, scoring 13.4 points per game and shooting a solid 36.7 percent from deep as the team's stretch four.
She leads the team by a decent margin, but it’s due more to the inconsistency of others rather than the inability of others. She's surrounded by other talented scorers, but while others are prone to fluctuating performances, she gets her buckets more often than not. She's been the team’s leading scorer in six games, more often than anyone else on the team.
Beyond that, Jacobs is explosive. Her upside is as high as anyone in the conference, putting up 27 points against Pepperdine and 31 against Arizona State. Jacobs is also the team leader in rebounds, averaging 6.8 per game.
Taija Santa Maria: As a freshman, Santa Maria is averaging 9.0 points per game, 2.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists. She is another in a long list of talented scorers on this Fresno State team. Her average is hurt by a shutout against Sacramento State, but she is a real scoring threat at all three levels, though she's at her best on the dribble drive.
Santa Maria is taking advantage of all the scorers around her and is dishing it out more than anybody. As the team's starting point guard, she's averaging 4.1 assists per game, while nobody else on the team is averaging more than 1.8. With all the variety on who is doing the scoring, Santa Maria is cashing in and making sure that when it’s not her, she’s the one getting the ball to them.
She is still very young, and struggles at times with turnovers, but her career is already moving in the right direction. As she continues to adjust to the game at the college level, she could become the anchor this Fresno State offense needs for years to come.
Stats To Know
Assist to Turnover Ratio: The Bulldogs can score, but they do it without moving the ball. They are averaging 64.9 points per game, well into the top half of the league and far more impressive than the 56.1 points Utah State earns on average, but with all that scoring, Fresno State is getting only 11.9 assists per game and has an assisted rate of just 50.9 percent. Both figures are better than Utah State’s – the Aggies get only 9.5 assists and have an assist rate of 48.2 percent – but the Bulldogs are still well below average.
Being overly selective about passing lanes and electing to shoot or drive over distributing the ball does hurt the team’s assist stats, but it does help keep turnovers down. The Bulldogs are averaging 13.1 turnovers per game, and their turnover rate is strong enough to make up for their lack of assists, giving them an assist-to-turnover ratio of 0.91, which is well above average.
While this is a strong point of the Bulldog offense, this style of play could actually benefit the Aggies. Utah State doesn’t rely on generating turnovers, forcing just 14.1 per game, so eliminating turnovers won’t necessarily harm Utah State's game plan. On the other side, Fresno State’s careful offense relies on keeping the ball and giving up fewer turnovers than opponents are used to.
Block Rate: Fresno State has not been able to lock down the post. On defense, they don’t get boards and they don’t block shots. The Bulldogs are only grabbing 21.6 defensive rebounds per game. For comparison, the Aggies are averaging 24.4 defensive rebounds per game.
On the offensive side of the ball, though, the Aggies are bringing down only 9.5 rebounds per game. Utah State will need to increase that number and could have a chance to do so against the Bulldogs. It isn’t a particularly strong rebounding team, but it is coming off an excellent performance, out-rebounding New Mexico – one of the strongest rebounding teams in the conference. However, that was a lopsided performance that heavily favored the defensive boards. 41 of those came on the defensive side of the ball with just nine on offense.
Blocked shots are a marginal stat, but a few can make a big difference. Even the best shot-blocking teams don’t get a lot, but Fresno State is deficient to the point where it is noticeable. The team only averages 1.7 blocks per game. In the five games she has played, USU freshman Gracie Johnson alone is averaging 1.8 blocks per game.
With players like Johnson and her freshman counterpart, Lauren Crocker, getting more time in the paint and working hard to hone their offensive skills, a vulnerable Fresno State post could be a good opportunity.
Parker Ballantyne covers Utah State women's basketball for The Aggship. You can follow him on Twitter at @PShark14 for updates on the Aggies.