Joe Santoro: Nevada vs. Utah State means something | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Nevada vs. Utah State means something

Joe Santoro
For the Nevada Appeal
UNLV guard Kris Clyburn drives on Nevada forward Tre'Shawn Thurman during Wednesday's game in Reno.
Tom R. Smedes/AP | FR171463 AP

The Nevada Wolf Pack and Utah State Aggies men’s basketball teams will play their most meaningful game against each other this Saturday in Logan, Utah since the 2009 Western Athletic Conference tournament title game at Lawlor Events Center. The Wolf Pack (26-2, 13-2) is just a half game ahead of the Aggies (23-6, 13-3) in the Mountain West standings with three games (two for Utah State) remaining in the regular season. The Aggies and Pack could finish first and second in the same conference this year for the first time since the 2009-10 season in the WAC. It also happened in 2008-09, 2007-08 and 2005-06 in the WAC. The Wolf Pack, by the way, lost that WAC tourney title game in 2009 at Lawlor Events Center in Mark Fox’s last year as head coach.

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Utah State’s Dee Glen Smith Spectrum has not been as packed in recent years as it was when the Aggies were battling the Pack in the WAC. The Aggies are averaging just 6,737 fans a game this year and have been under 7,000 a game for the last three years. The Aggies have also had just one crowd of 10,000 or more in the last four seasons (against in-state rival BYU). The Wolf Pack attracted sell-out crowds of 10,270 at the Smith Spectrum five times in seven years (2005-06 through 2011-12) but the Pack’s last two trips to Logan produced crowds of just 5,796 and 6,122. A average crowd of just under 10,000 greeted the Pack in Logan 10 times in 11 years from 2005-16 (the Pack did not play there in 2012-13). A five-figure crowd, though, could show up on Saturday.

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The Wolf Pack’s two losses this year came in front of crowds in excess of 10,000 on the road at New Mexico and San Diego State. But the Pack has won on the road this year in front of crowds of 10,000 or more at UNLV, Utah and Grand Canyon. The Pack also won at Fresno State in front of 9,586 this year. Eric Musselman is 6-7 in front of crowds of 10,000 or more away from Lawlor Events Center in his four seasons as Wolf Pack head coach.

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Utah State, under first-year coach Craig Smith, is the surprise team in the Mountain West this season. The Aggies, which went to nine NCAA tournaments in 14 seasons (1998-2011), have struggled since moving to the Mountain West in 2013-14, going 22-32 in conference games the past three years heading into this year. The Aggies, though, have won 12 of their past 13 games heading into Saturday’s showdown. The Pack, though, has won four in a row and six-of-seven (all with Musselman) against the Aggies, including a 72-49 rout at Lawlor on Jan. 2, holding Utah State to 26 percent shooting from the floor and 17 percent (4-of-23) on threes.

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Utah State, which went 81-2 at home from 2006-07 through 2010-11, is 13-1 at home this year. The Pack has gone 3-3 in its last six games at the Smith Spectrum since the 2011-12 season. The Wolf Pack, though, went 2-17 in Logan from 1935-36 through 2010-11.

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Musselman’s Pack rolled over UNLV 89-73 on Wednesday night at Lawlor. The victory pulled Musselman into a tie with Jack Spencer for the most career victories for a Wolf Pack coach (seven) over UNLV. Musselman is 7-2 against UNLV while Spencer went 7-15 from 1961-62 through 1971-72. Pat Foster (1993-94 through 1998-99) is the only other Pack coach with a winning record against UNLV (5-4).

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There have been rumblings that this might be Marvin Menzies’ final year as UNLV head coach. Menzies has done reasonably well at UNLV (46-47) in his three seasons, especially after going 11-21 with a depleted roster in his first year in 2016-17. Menzies’ future at UNLV, at least for next year, might depend on whether the Rebels can convince a more high-profile coach (like Rick Pitino) to take over the program. The Rebels have not made the NCAA tournament since 2013 and have not won a NCAA tournament game since 2008. UNLV also hasn’t won a Mountain West regular season title since 2000 or a conference tournament since 2008. The Rebels, which once averaged nearly 14,000 fans a game for six consecutive seasons (2009-14), are also averaging just 8,684 fans a game at home this year.