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Logan • On Tuesday morning, Stew Morrill recalled taking one of his teams down to face UTEP when Don Haskins was still roaming the sideline. He was surprised to find five players ready to start, and only one player coming off the bench for the Miners.
"He had six guys and damn near beat us," Morrill said. "The six he had were pretty good."
When the Aggies take the court on Thursday against UT-Arlington, they'll find themselves in not quite as desperate a situation, but frighteningly close. Only eight players on scholarship are healthy, and another walk-on might be available. Three starters from the season-opener are likely out for the season.
Morrill called it "as weird a situation as I've ever had."
But the mood at Utah State's Tuesday practice was resilient, even defiant, as the Aggies staved off lowering the bar for the season after the recent injuries to stars Preston Medlin and Kyisean Reed. With a depleted bench and more minutes to spread among fewer players, the team will attempt to replicate the kind of fierceness that Morrill witnessed firsthand years ago.
"I think they're excited for the challenge," junior guard Spencer Butterfield said. "They know they've got some abilities and some skills, and now they get to bring it to the table and showcase them."
The holes are staggering, and there's no way to dress that up. Medlin and Reed combined have accounted for nearly 40 percent of Utah State's offense in conference play, including the game they sat out. They also were the top two leaders in minutes per game and steals.
The depth at those positions is already thin. Butterfield will move to the 2-spot, but he's also the backup 3-man. TeNale Roland is the backup shooting guard, but is also the backup point guard. And Jordan Stone will have to play out of position as starting 4-man Ben Clifford's only true relief.
And if they get into foul trouble, that's when the real problems start.
"You have to worry about finishing games with only four guys," Morrill says. "All kinds of wacky things can happen."
Morrill spent Monday telling players the individual adjustments they needed to make for the Aggies to win. And according to the team, the response has been good.
"I feel like the team has come together," Stone said. "It's been really tough with Kyisean and Preston [injured], but we've had two really good practices the last two days, and everybody's stepping up, trying to learn their new position and what they have to do."
Jarred Shaw makes a solid candidate for the new focal point of the team, as it searches for more scoring and rebounding. He's so far leading the team in boards (8.4 per game), and is the leading healthy scorer (12.4). Matt Lopez and Stone behind him will give the Aggies a continued height advantage.
Yet the point totals are sure to drop, so defense will be a priority, Morrill said. Utah State will have to be more physical on defense, and challenge its remaining WAC opponents to win in low-scoring contests.
But don't expect less of the Aggies, the team says. They aren't letting go of their own goals.
"Keep the expectations where they're at," Butterfield said. "We still have our expectations where they were at the beginning: We still want to win out. That's our goal. We'll take it one game at a time, and just approach every game like we're going to win it."
Aggies adapting to injuries
With injuries, this is how Utah State's depth chart looks now, with some players playing other positions as backups.
Point guard • Marcel Davis*, TeNale Roland
Shooting guard • Spencer Butterfield*, Connor Garner
Small forward • Marvin Jean*
Power forward • Ben Clifford*
Center • Jarred Shaw*, Matt Lopez, Jordan Stone