WBB Preview: Aggies Open Conference Play Against MWC Leviathan
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WBB Preview: Aggies Open Conference Play Against MWC Leviathan

Utah State can... get some good cardio in as it opens MWC play against UNLV, the two-time defending conference champions with as strong a roster as the Aggies will see. WBB Preview:
WBB Preview: Aggies Open Conference Play Against MWC Leviathan
Photo via UNLV Athletics/Lucas Peltier

As it tips off Mountain West Conference play on Saturday afternoon, Utah State will be forced to face the top of the class. UNLV is far and away the leader of the pack in 2023-24, as it was in 2021-22 and 2022-23. Just how good the Rebels are will quickly be made known to the Aggies, although it’s no secret now.

Led by head coach Lindy La Rocque, now in her third season, UNLV is 26th in the NET rankings and has spent time in the AP top 25 – a rarity for MWC teams in WBB. The Rebels are coming off an impressive campaign, capped with their second NCAA tournament appearance in a row following a 28-2 regular season finish.

Understandably, they were named the preseason favorites to win the conference again this year, and have put together a near-perfect season so far. Their only loss is to Seton Hall (now 9-3), which dropped them from the AP rankings – but make no mistake, this is still one of the best teams in the county.

UNLV enters this bout with a 10-1 overall record and a perfect 4-0 mark at home. Earlier this season, the Rebels earned their first win over a power team under La Rocque when they hosted and dispatched Arizona. Their next time on the floor, they earned another one, beating Oklahoma on the road. Neither game was close.

Utah State, meanwhile, is still searching for its fourth win and sits at 3-8. The Aggies have only won a single road game this season, a two-point victory over Kansas City, and they head to Vegas marred by a five-game losing streak – capped by a home loss to DII Western Colorado in their final non-conference match. Utah State hasn’t beaten UNLV since Feb. 28, 2017, when the Aggies won 58-49 at home.

The last time these two teams met, a late-February game in Las Vegas last season, the Lady Rebels handled the Aggies with ease and sent Utah State home with an 86-32 loss. Somehow, that final score doesn't fully reflect the gap between the two sides – UNLV led 48-9 at the half and hardly needed its star-studded starting lineup.

All told, a bout with UNLV is a gargantuan task for even the best MWC teams, and Utah State is far from that, even on its best day. This Rebels team is loaded with playmakers, and when it comes to the stats, there's no good place to begin. Our usual approach of looking at a few players and stats is hardly sufficient for describing a squad this strong, but we will do our best.

Players To Know

Alyssa Durazo-Frescas: As one of the conference’s most prolific three-point scorers, Durazo-Frescas is one of those players who can demoralize a team with her accuracy from deep. Knocking down 3.1 three-pointers a game, Durazo-Frescas leads the MWC while hitting a whopping 44.7 percent of her tries. She can do it from everywhere, be it from pulling up in transition, catching and launching, or shooting off the dribble. She’s automatic.

She showed off in UNLV's win over San Diego, scoring 24 points while knocking down 8 of 11 attempts from deep. That’s 72.7 percent, for the math lovers out there. She didn’t attempt a single shot from inside the three-point line, because she simply did not need to. It wasn’t a fluke either. She put 17 points on Utah Tech without a two-point attempt, going 5 of 10 from three, though she subsidized that score with a pair of makes from the stripe.

As good as the junior guard can be, she can also run cold. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s notable. She was held scoreless on a 0 for 4 night from beyond the arc against Oklahoma, and though the team still won comfortably, it puts an extra strain on the Rebels when she's off. She scored just four points in UNLV's lone defeat of the season.

On the year, Durazo-Frescas is averaging 10.5 points, 2.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game from her spot as UNLV's starting small forward.

Kiara Jackson: Jackson leads the team in assists and is second in the conference in assists, averaging 5.1 APG. Despite her passing abilities, she could hardly be described as a one-dimensional guard. She's also an excellent scorer who can grab a few rebounds and steals along the way.

Firmly entrenched as the No. 2 threat on this Rebel offense, Jackson would be team-leader material for just about every other group in the league. If it weren’t for the All-American caliber Desi-Rae Young, Jackson would have an even bigger role than the one she has.

The 5-7 guard can score at all three levels, and is possibly the team's most versatile threat from the field. She's quick and crafty, flying to the rim if a defender makes the mistake of blinking at the wrong time and hitting 47.5 percent of her two-pointers. She also has range to spare, knocking down 52.0 percent of her tries from deep (a little over two per game). She adds a 72.7 percent free throw percentage to complete her well-rounded offensive game.

That game was on display at Oklahoma, when she had her season-high of 20 points with six rebounds, five assists and three steals. She's averaging 13.5 points, 5.1 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game on the season.

Desi-Rae Young: When it comes to players who can take over a game, there are few as notable as Young. The 6-1 center is as dominant a player as the Aggies have seen this year, leading the Rebels in points, rebounds and steals while averaging the second-most points per game in the Mountain West (and the second-most rebounds).

Young is a familiar name in the Mountain West. Now in her fourth year at UNLV, the Vegas native has been an undeniable star for her entire career. She was named MWC Freshman of the Year in 2020-21, POY in 2021-22, tournament MVP in 2022-23, and she's been picked to the all-conference teams three times. Utah State and UNLV only met once last season, and in that game, Young led the game with 19 points.

Not only does the UNLV offense run through Young, but her performance on the boards and the defensive end is a pillar for UNLV. Although she isn’t a particularly threatening rim protector, she makes her presence known with plenty of rebounds and steals when she’s not scoring, averaging 8.8 boards and 1.8 steals per game.

On the offensive end, she has an excellent IQ and a knack for using screens and off-ball movement to get herself (or one of her teammates) open. Young is averaging 17.8 points and 2.0 assists per game, and draining 52.3 percent of her attempts from the field with an 80 percent hit rate from the free-throw line (where she appears for 4.1 attempts per game, more than twice as much as any of her teammates).

Young is coming off a 19-point game at FDU. She struggled in the loss to Seton Hall, but had her season-high of 32 points in the game before that at Oklahoma. If there's a good way to reliably slow her down, the college basketball world has still yet to find it.

Stats To Know

Points Per Play: The Rebels display a dizzying offensive efficiency, averaging 0.94 points per play – almost a full point every time they get the ball. UNLV pulls this off with a balanced attack, both in how it wants to score and how it handles the details, excelling in limiting turnovers and attacking the offensive glass.

How do the Aggies fare in this regard? Well, much worse. The Aggies are averaging 0.7 points per play, largely for the same reasons. Surrendering too many turnovers is the chief culprit, though the rebounding and shooting for the Aggies doesn’t exactly make up for it.

UNLV doesn’t give the ball away often, averaging just 11.1 turnovers per game – the seventh-lowest in the country (Utah State is averaging 20.2). On the boards, the Rebels have a 33 percent offensive rebounding rate, which isn’t the most impressive stat this team claims, but it's plenty to get the job done, especially when paired with tremendous shooting accuracy. UNLV is shooting 44.6 percent from the field, with a 49 percent hit rate from two and 36.6 percent from three. It gets to the line at an average rate, but once there, the team knocks down 81.1 percent of its free throw tries.

Scoring Margin: The Rebels aren’t just winning games, they are running away with them. They're averaging 80.5 points per game while allowing just 60.5, claiming a 20-point average margin that the schedule backs up, as UNLV has yet to win a game by fewer than 10 points. Utah State’s trend is in the opposite direction, as the Aggies are losing games by an average of 13.4 points.

There's just no positive way to spin a game like this. UNLV is a true powerhouse in the MWC, right up there with the best mid-major programs in America. It has nationally recognized star power, 10 very capable players in its rotation, and essentially no clear weaknesses. The Rebels haven't won their last 24 conference games (including postseason play) by mistake. La Rocque is one of the absolute best coaches in college basketball, and her program operates at heights hardly visible for the Aggies as currently constructed. Success for Utah State on Saturday does not look like a victory, or even a relatively close game. Success is competing for 40 minutes, despite the odds being stacked so heavily in UNLV's favor.

Parker Ballantyne covers Utah State women's basketball for The Aggship. You can follow him on Twitter at @PShark14 for updates on the Aggies.