Las Vegas • If there’s only one chance at a first impression, this is Utah State’s last chance at shaping it.
Year one in the Mountain West has been full of frustrating stretches for the Aggies (17-13), but as a No. 8 seed in the conference tournament, it’s the real crunch time for the program. Utah State hopes to be among the risers in March Madness, making the most of a challenging regular season.
Utah State is matched up with Colorado State, a team it has beaten twice this year. And to get started on the right foot, the Aggies will need something that has come in ebbs and flows this year: determination.
“When we’re all on that same page and we play determined, we’re a tough team to beat,” forward Kyle Davis said. “We competed with almost everyone in the second half of league. We think we’re capable of that when we play to the best of our ability.”
The road begins Wednesday afternoon when Utah State faces the No. 9-seeded Rams at Thomas and Mack Center. The expectation is the Aggies’ conference tournament experience won’t be a long one.
Should they bounce Colorado State in the first round, they’ll run up against top overall seed San Diego State in the second round. Although the Aggies played the Aztecs to overtime in Logan, they were whipped when they returned the visit in February.
In all, Utah State has not fared well against the league’s elite this year, going 7-1 against the top four seeds in conference play. When faced with the best athletes the Mountain West has to offer, the Aggies have sometimes struggled mightily, particularly against UNLV.
For at least part of the winning equation, the team will try to tap into the unpredictable magic of the season to make a run to Saturday’s final.
“I think we’re excited: Our guys are anxious to see what they can do,” coach Stew Morrill said. “Obviously, it’s a huge challenge having to win four nights, but conference tournaments are interesting events. Lots of things often happen, and we’re going to have to pull off some upsets to keep on playing.”
But short of the top teams in the league falling to the Aggies’ feet, they’ll also have to play their best basketball. Utah State has gotten strength from its 3-point shooting, the third-best in the nation, and a strong rebounding margin has been a sign of success this year.
The Aggies have also picked up wins in games where they’ve defended well — with both games against Colorado State standing as perhaps the best examples.
Far from looking past the potential end of its season, Utah State has remained keenly aware of it. Senior guard Preston Medlin, who will look for an opportunity to break into the program’s top 15 all-time scorers, said facing the end could help the Aggies push a bit harder.
The first year in a new conference is almost over — as is the opportunity to leave a positive first impression.
“It’s tough to play that many nights in a row, but you’ve just gotta,” he said. “If you lose, you’re done. I think that helps motivate guys. I think that will motivate us this week.
No. 8 Utah State vs. No. 9 Colorado State
O Thomas and Mack Center, Las Vegas
Tipoff • Wednesday, 3 p.m.
Live stream • Mountain West Network (www.themw.com)
Radio • 1280 AM
Records • USU 17-13, 7-11; CSU 16-15, 7-11
Series history • USU leads 54-35
Last meeting • Feb. 11, 2014, at CSU; USU 71, CSU 62
About the Aggies • Spencer Butterfield and Jarred Shaw received all-Mountain West honorable mentions on Monday, a year after both earned all-WAC honors. … Utah State is third nationally in 3-point percentage with a 40.7 percent mark. … The Aggies are coming off a pair of wins to finish the season, against San Jose State and Wyoming.
About the Rams • Daniel Bejarano and J.J. Avila earned second— and third-team all-conference when teams were announced Monday. … Coach Larry Eustachy is facing his former program for the third time, all this season, and enters the match 0-2 against Utah State since coaching in Logan.