On a day chock full of conference championship games, this one will be the nightcap out west. Utah State steamrolled through the conference during the regular season and muscled their way to a national ranking by the end of the regular season - now they want their second automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament in three years.
Boise State believe it or not does have success in places other than the football field. The Broncos were on the heels of the Aggies during the regular season, finishing second overall in the conference and reaching the 20-win mark. Should Boise win tonight there is certainly a chance that the WAC would suddenly morph into a two-bid conference, but ultimately history indicates that the winner of this game and the winner alone will have a happy Selection Sunday.
Let's meet the contestants.
Utah State Aggies, #1 Seed, 29-3 (15-1)
Utah State is just one step away from capping off arguably the finest season in program history and yet a loss in tonight's conference championship could ultimately leave the Aggies on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday. Under the guise of 12th-year head coach Stew Morril, USU tied a regular season program record with 28 wins and emerging with a W tonight would tie the 2009 team for the most wins in a season altogether with 30.
For a team that has won as much as the Aggies have, their offense is surprisingly underrated, due in large part to the extremely slow pace of play the team operates at (312th nationally). According to Synergy Sports, Utah State has the 20th most efficient offense in the country, posting an adjusted field goal percentage of 53% and averaging nearly .97 points per possession. Just to put that efficiency into perspective, the Aggies rank higher than programs like Kentucky, Georgetown and Gonzaga, despite not scoring nearly as many points per game as they do.
The bulk of offensive possessions have come in transition and spot-up scenarios where Utah State certainly does well enough, but low-post scoring has clearly been their greatest strength when using the points per possession metric. At a 13.1% usage rate, post-up possession have been the third most frequently used play-type in their attack and they rank in the top 6% nationally with a scoring efficiency of .99 ppp on over 50% shooting. Senior forward and WAC Player of the Year Tai Wesley deserves the majority of the credit here as he is responsibly for nearly two-third of the Aggies post-up possessions this season and has shot a tremendous 59% from the floor.
Of course a stellar defense is the driving force behind Utah State's success this season. In 32 games played to date, only eight opponents have managed to top the 70-point plateau, one of those was in overtime. The Aggies have the 8th best adjusted defensive efficiency in the country, the sixth best effective field goal percentage against and allow the second lowest offensive rebound percentage in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy. Long story short - you better score on your first opportunity because you likely aren't getting a second one. Their ability to defend a variety of play-types has also been critical to their success as Utah State ranks in the top 15% nationally in defending transition possessions, as well as post-up and pick and roll scenarios.
Boise State Broncos, #2 Seed, 20-11 (10-6)
After a second place finish in the WAC the Broncos are on the verge of reaching the NCAA Tournament for just the sixth time in school history and the first time since 2008 when they won the conference title. Led by first year head coach Leon Rice, Boise State recovered from a mediocre start in WAC play and has won eight straight heading into tonight's contest.
Boise's offense is solid but not spectacular, ranking 51st nationally in points per game but is middle of the road in efficiency. The bulk of the team's offense has been in spot-up scenarios, making up more than one-fourth of all possessions during the regular season, but the team has excelled to the greatest degree in iso sets. The Broncos rank in the 85th percentile using the points per possession metric, shooting 41% on all isolation plays. They are nearly as good running the pick and roll, particularly in their guards ability to create offense off these screens. La'Shard Anderson has been the standout here, as he accounts for nearly two-thirds of the teams pick and roll possessions when looking at the ball handler in this set. All told, he has produced (shots and passes leading to shots) .97 points per possession which is quite good for such a high usage rate.
Defensively the Broncos are quite Jekyll and Hyde, proving to be excellent in some regards and atrocious in others. Boise forces a tremendous number of turnovers, posting the 7th best opponent turnover rate in the country according to Ken Pomeroy. At the same time, they foul shooters at one of the highest rates in the nation and were dead last in the WAC in two-point field goal percentage allowed, letting opponents connect on 52% of all shots in side the arc. Utah State certainly won't mind that Boise was very poor at defending post-up possession and all other shot attempts around the rim, allowing opposing teams to shoot 50% and 47% respectively in these two settings.
Boise State is playing some of its best basketball of the season, but the Broncos two losses to Utah State during the regular season by a total of 37 points is a pretty good indication of how today's final will likely go. The Broncos can put up a stiff fight to be certain, but it would be surprising to say the least if Utah State wasn't representing the WAC with an automatic bid tomorrow.