The third in a three-part series analyzing the play of the Utah State basketball team- preseason, halfway point of the entire season, midseason in WAC play, and the final part, after the season ends.
Post players- The '4s' and '5s'
Gary Wilkinson: A-
The Aggies' starting center stepped up his play when the conference battles began, particularly on defense and rebounding the ball. With perhaps the exception of Vanderbilt's Andrew Ogilvy and Utah's Luke Nevill, he has had to face tougher post players in the WAC compared to non-conference games- including Boise State center Matt Nelson, Nevada big man JaVale McGee, and San Jose State pivot C.J. Webster- and has, for the most part, played bigger and rebounded more consistently than before the calendar year rolled around. Webster did own him and his teammates Tai Wesley and Steve DuCharme, but in the other eight games you've got to be happy by the way Wilkinson has stepped up his game on both ends of the floor. His rebounding has increased by nearly two boards a game (4.5 to 6.3) since starting WAC play.
Tai Wesley: B
Tai has continued to be a pleasant surprise for Utah State, especially since moving into the starting role, where since that day USU has gone 13-1. He has had some monster games in conference, starting with a bang against Hawaii with 26 points. In fact, the factor that holds the 21-year-old freshman back the most is himself, since he often suffers from foul trouble. Take the very next game after he dropped 26, for instance, against New Mexico State, where he played just 6 minutes in the first half due to foul trouble and finished with just four points. However, he has played well in most of the WAC games, particularly in six of the nine contests when he didn't get into serious foul trouble. Take the Idaho game in Logan, the very night that Jaycee Carroll celebrated the scoring record. Although it was Carroll's night, and he finished with 21 points, Tai scored 23 and simply embarrassed Vandal post Darin Nagle. Consistency really is the key for Tai: against Nevada, he scored 14 points and ripped eight boards, but then followed it up two games later with 13 points but zero rebounds versus SJSU two days ago.
Steve DuCharme: C-
DuCharme has struggled in conference play. He simply hasn't seemed to have the confidence that he had before losing his spot in the starting lineup. Turnovers have been a big issue with DuCharme. Against Nevada Feb. 2, he committed four straight turnovers in the first half when the ball went into his hands. In fact, Tai Wesley has probably passed DuCharme in his abilities as a basketball player. Still, DuCharme plays a pivotal role on the team, playing 20-22 minutes per game despite coming off the bench. In fact, he plays two positions for the Aggies, at power forward alongside Wilkinson or at center with PF Wesley, a true challenge indeed made even more complicated coming off the bench.
Swingmen- The '2s' and '3s'
Jaycee Carroll: A+
There is nothing wrong at all with Jaycee Carroll. In conference play, he has proven that in addition to being able to light it up from three-point land (over 50 percent for the season, best in the nation), he can score in a variety of ways- mid-range, running in the fast break, scoring off offensive rebounds- which he has a great knack of doing- and off the dribble a little bit. That is exactly what the NBA scouts, particularly frequent Spectrum visitor Richard Smith of the Utah Jazz- need to see from him. He is even an average defender now, or as Stew Morrill would put it early in the season, 'adequate.' Though he had slow starts in two of the nine games so far- at home against Boise State and San Jose State- he still finished with stellar games of 29 and 26 points, respectably. In fact, against BSU he turned a slow start into one of the three or four personal best games of the season, hitting six three-pointers in ten attempts in a huge, nail-biting 82-78 win that made coach Morrill the winningest coach in Utah State basketball history. Add in 92-plus percent from the free-throw line (2nd best in the country) and 54 percent from the field, and you have a guy that should be an All-American when the year is over.
Tyler Newbold: B+
The 6-4 Newbold has been a wonderful surprise, usually taking on the defensive assignment against the opponent's best player, whether they be 6-1 or 6-8. Particularly impressive on the defensive side is that he has managed to slow down a couple NBA prospects, completely shutting down 6-7 forward Justin Hawkins (well, at least once in Logan- the game in Las Cruces was a different story), and limiting Nevada swingman Marcellus Kemp, among others. When his team didn't show up to play in that Las Cruces game, at least Newbold had the offensive night of his career with 20 points on efficient outside shooting. Though he is not asked to score, Newbold can hit the 3 with regularity and is a great free-throw shooter at 84 percent. Newbold has shot the majority of these free-throws late in WAC games, as well.
Pooh Williams: C+
The 6-3 small forward has essentially taken DeUndrae Spraggins' spot in the rotation, as the 20-year-old freshman has been in the regular rotation four out of the last five games- and the one game he wasn't was when he was suspended for partying at Louisiana Tech. He has helped Newbold slow some of the conference's better perimeter players, even players who may have three or four inches on Williams. This includes SJSU's small forward Tim Pierce on Saturday. While the Aggies as a whole did not play well, Williams was a large part in the 6-7 senior going just 5-14 from the field and tiring him on offense to the point that he got too fatigued to chase around Jaycee Carroll effectively while playing defense. Williams needs to get more comfortable shooting outside when he gets the rare opportunity.
DeUndrae Spraggins: C
Spraggins has been replaced in the lineup by Pooh. While a solid perimeter defender who deserves credit for his work the first five games of WAC season, for whatever reason he can no longer crack the rotation in his first year with the Aggies- though he is a junior.
Point Guard- The '1s'
Kris Clark: A
Clark has maintained his place as a member of the top tier of point guards the league has to offer, along with Fresno State's Kevin Bell and NMSU's rather plump Fred Peete. He leads the conference in assists per game (6.2) and assists-to-turnover ratio for the second straight season. He finds his teammates in all the right places for scores, especially Jaycee outside on cuts and also Wilkinson on cross-screens underneath. While not a great shooter, his jump shot is improved from last season and even non-conference play this year, and has a really good ability of finding teammates in tight spots on a fast break.
Desmond Stephens: B
Stephens has improved during WAC battles compared to an up-and-down November and December. For the most part, he has been able to hold down the fort while Clark is on the bench, playing 10-12 minutes per game. He just can't get suspended any more and put the team, who only runs a two-point guard rotation, in an uncomfortable situation.
The improved play at point guard has made the biggest difference in the Aggies' play through the WAC so far- at 8-1 and in first place. The play of three freshman in the eight-man rotation, including two in the starting lineup, cannot be overlooked either, nor can the astounding play of Carroll. Utah State has just gelled better over the course of the season. However, they have played six home games and just three road games in conference, and now face a stretch of playing three straight road games in eight days. USU just needs to play the way they did against Nevada, New Mexico State, and at Fresno, their three best WAC performances among their eight victories, and among their five or six best-played games of the season, and they will have a shot at the end of every game.