After a fruitless two-game homestand, Utah State is hitting the road.
San Jose State provided a slight reprieve from the toughest teams in the Mountain West, but now Utah State will continue its tour of the top of the conference as it plays New Mexico. The Lobos were picked to finish sixth but are over-performing that mark thus far – at 10-5 (1-1), they're in possession of the fourth-highest winning percentage in the Mountain West. Although still a tier below the likes of UNLV, Wyoming and Colorado State (which Utah State has yet to face), the Lobos are a clear step ahead of San Jose State and will present another a serious challenge for the last-place Aggies.
Utah State, 3-11 (0-3), is trying to finally end a losing streak that has now grown to eight games. If successful, it will also pick up its first conference win of the season. New Mexico, meanwhile, is looking to bounce back from a loss against Boise State to get back on track in the MWC race.
Head coach Mike Bradbury is in his eighth year at the helm for New Mexico. He has led the Lobos to the WNIT in five of his seven years, including the last three years in a row. Last season, they went 21-13 (12-6) and got through Northern Arizona in the first round of the WNIT before falling to Washington, having finished in a tie for third place atop the MWC.
Utah State trails the all-time series 26-7, and fell 111-55 when these two last met. The Aggies haven't beaten New Mexico since the 2015-16 season, and they've only once left Albuquerque with a victory, back in 2014.
The Lobos are tremendously well-rounded. Their scoring is heavily distributed, rather than being concentrated around one star, and it’s not due to a lack of star power. On the contrary, New Mexico has four players averaging 10-plus points per game, and each of them is also pitching in around five or more rebounds and at least one assist per game.
The starting lineup of point guard Aniyah Augmon, shooting guard Nyah Wilson, small forward Viane Cumber, power forward Paula Ruess and center Charlotte Kohl presents a threat unlike anything Utah State has seen yet this season. It's one of the most talented starting fives in the MWC, and none of its members could be described fairly as one-dimensional. The Lobos are good on both ends of the floor, and can tear into teams in a variety of ways.
That top five alone is averaging 55.9 points per game, more than Utah State’s entire team (which is averaging 55.2). Mostly thanks to Kohl, they are averaging 2.8 blocks per game, which, again, bests the entire Aggie roster and its 2.4 blocks per game. Those five also average 30 rebounds and 9.1 assists per game, while Utah State averages 32.7 and 9.6 assists.
It's a bit shakier as New Mexico dips into its rotation, and there are a few notable weaknesses, but none that the Lobos can't work around. They don’t have a particularly impressive field goal percentage, and their three-point percentage is equally mundane. They also have a tough time getting steals, although hosting the Aggies can change that in short order. Making matters tougher offensively, New Mexico doesn’t get to the line often, touting a 15.3 percent free-throw rate that ranks 257th nationally.
Outside of that, though, the Lobos play a very fundamentally sound game. They're cohesive and well-coached, they attack the boards with fervor, they don’t foul, they don’t turn the ball over, and as one might expect, they win basketball games.
Players To Know
Charlotte Kohl: The starting lineup is anchored by Kohl, who is the lowest-scoring of the bunch and the only starter not averaging double digits. However, she makes up for it by leading the team in rebounds and blocks. A 6-5 graduate transfer from Giessen, Germany by way of Mississippi State, Kohl has made an immediate and significant impact upon arriving in Albuquerque.
Her scoring average is hampered by a few low-scoring nights, including her one-point game to open up conference play at Nevada, but she is a capable scorer who had a four-game non-conference stretch racking up 15, 16, 12 and 14 points against New Mexico State, Mississippi Valley State, Southern Utah and Hampton.
A nine-point game against Boise State was a step back in the right direction after the slow outing against Nevada, and Kohl will be looking to keep that going. She could outperform her average against a Utah State team that struggled to contain Wyoming’s center Allyson Fertig, just two games ago, and is relying on big minutes from a handful of underclassmen in the post. She's averaging 8.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 0.7 assists per game, shooting 52.1 percent from the field.
Paula Reus: Reus, a forward in her third year with the Lobos, is one of two players sharing a team-high of 12.4 points per game. Of the two, Reus is a bit more reliable, while her counterpart can run a little bit hot-and-cold. That reliability extends across the junior from Palma De Mallorca, Spain's game, but she's at her best as a scorer. She's a competent three-point shooter, hitting 30.0 percent of her 70 attempts across 15 games, but she excels in the post (49.0 percent on two-pointers) and can do damage at the free-throw stripe (75.0 percent), though she doesn't get there very often.
In addition to her scoring, she is also New Mexico's second-leading rebounder with 6.1 per game, having narrowly missed out on a double-double a handful of times this season – coming up just short on the glass with eight rebounds in four games and nine in one. Each time, she had her requisite double-digit scoring night, a mark she has missed only five times.
There are certainly more impactful defenders on the roster, and Kohl's presence in the post has helped to free Reus up for more work offensively, but she is also averaging 0.9 steals and 0.4 blocks a game.
Nyah Wilson: The other half of the pair of players averaging 12.4 points per game is Wilson, a transfer student from Syracuse who played two years for the Orange and is having a successful junior campaign on her new squad.
Wilson has explosive upside with the ball in her hands, but has been prone to dry spells – on the season, she has four 20-plus point games and six games with 10 or fewer points, one of which saw her shut out entirely. Utah State would certainly prefer to avoid the former, as the Lobos, unsurprisingly, are 4-0 in those games.
Her three-point shooting is part of what makes her performance unpredictable. Sometimes, she won’t shoot at all. Sometimes she'll let it fly nine times, as she did once (she hit three). When she falls somewhere between the two, as she did with a 3 of 4 night against Boise State, she can be very tough to handle on the perimeter. Her efficiency stats are shaky, shooting 35.1 percent from the field and 33.3 percent from three, but she easily leads the Lobos with 72 free-throw attempts (and hits those at a 76.4 percent rate).
Along with her 12.4 points per game, Wilson is averaging 4.7 rebounds, 1.2 assists, and 0.9 steals a night. She's proven to be an ideal backcourt pairing for Augmon, who is a terrific passer (3.8 APG), rebounder (5.6 RPG) and defender (2.1 SPG), but not much of a shooter, despite averaging 11.3 points per game (same as Cumber).
Stats To Know
Rebound Rate: The Lobos are extremely dangerous on the boards, thanks in large part to the consistent effort they pick up from this backcourt. Overall, they boast a 52.1 percent rebound rate, significantly higher than Utah State’s 47.8 percent. As with most facets of New Mexico’s game, this comes about with balance. Six Lobos are averaging 3.4 or more rebounds per game, led by Kohl but supported nicely by Reus, Augmon, Cumber (5.3 RPG), Wilson and bench forward Hulda Joaquim (3.4 RPG).
Where the Lobos really excel at pulling down rebounds is on the defensive end, where they are snatching 30 a game for a rate of 75.3 percent that ranks 20th nationally. Head to head with Utah State’s offensive rebounding, the Lobos tout a massive edge – the Aggie offense is only grabbing 9.7 boards a night, or 29.6 percent, 229th nationally. This side of the rebounding battle, combined with Utah State’s knack for turning the ball over, could mean far fewer scoring opportunities for the Aggies. Utah State is a slightly better shooting team, but it won't matter if New Mexico has a huge advantage in shots on the basket.
Free Throw Rate: New Mexico plays very smart basketball, and getting to the line is not an easy task against Bradbury’s squad. The Lobos are averaging just 12.9 fouls per game, the fifth-fewest in the county, and a world ahead of the 254th-ranked Aggies (18.3 infractions per game).
By avoiding fouls, the Lobos are only allowing teams to earn an average of only 11.2 percent of their total points from the line, forcing them to reckon with a defense that ranks well above the national average in every shooting category. Utah State has relied on the charity stripe as a source of offense and is earning exactly double the percentage of its points allowed by New Mexico (22.4 percent). Losing that avenue could cost Utah State a lot of points if it doesn't adjust well.
Parker Ballantyne covers Utah State women's basketball for The Aggship. You can follow him on Twitter at @PShark14 for updates on the Aggies.