Utah State a big underdog to make Mountain West tournament run, plus more gameday notes
Las Vegas • Taking a look around the national previews of the Mountain West Tournament, Utah State fans might notice the Aggies are conspicuously absent.
Such is the life of a No. 8 seed - the lowest of the Stew Morrill era.
As Utah State opens up tournament action today, just about no one outside of Logan is giving them much of a chance to advance deep, much less win an NCAA berth. By the Aggies' own admission, they'd have to surprise a lot of people to take down a field that includes two top-25 ranked teams.
No. 8 San Diego State, the regular season champ, seems to be the favorite of the field. If not them, then New Mexico, ranked No. 20 this week. If not them, then maybe UNLV, which is on the bubble.
Three teams that the Aggies went a combined 0-6 against this year.
Utah State can't even get love as a darkhorse contender. So far, that's going to Fresno State, which beat the Aggies at home mere weeks ago.
Then again, Utah State has had moments of brilliance against both the Aztecs and the Lobos. They forced overtime against SDSU, then the No. 7-ranked team in the country, at the Spectrum before falling just short. The Aggies also led New Mexico much of the way in The Pit before dropping on a late Lobo rally.
The biggest factor outside of talent mismatches might well be stamina. Playing on back-to-back nights is hard as it is. But playing back-to-back and facing the top overall seed on the second night? That's challenging for any team, much less one that has had ups and downs like Utah State has this year.
Of course, none of this appears to have deterred Utah State from feeling good about its chances, as slim as those chances might be in the eyes of others.
"Every year it's important to go into the tournament feeling confident," Preston Medlin said. "We know what it is. Whatever the outcome is, we just got to stay positive."
Here's some parting dueling statistics for you: The last two times the Aggies have switched conferences, the team made the conference championship game that year before falling in the finals (Pacific in 1979 Big West Tournament and Nevada in 2006 WAC Tournament).
But maybe a more telling stat given the Aggies position: No eighth seed has ever advanced to the Mountain West championship game. No. 8 seeds are 2-4 in the opening round, 1-7 in the quarterfinals, and 0-1 in the semifinals.
Third time not a charm?
Whoever developed the unattributed adage, "It's hard to beat a team three times in one season," should kick themselves for not earning royalties off that line.
It surfaces again, as Utah State prepares for Colorado State today. At least Morrill isn't a big devotee of that time-worn theory that seems perhaps a bit thin at best.
"The only way you can disprove the old theory 'it's hard to beat a team three times' is to go out and beat them three times," he said "Through the years, we've had to play teams a lot that we had beaten twice and we've been fortunate enough to win a third time."
That doesn't mean Morrill takes it as just another game: He doesn't.
The extra atmosphere, stakes and urgency changes the feel of the game in conference tournaments. More than thinking about the match as the third of the season against Colorado State, Morrill compared it to pushing "reset" on the series.
"It's a whole different game, it's a whole different deal," he said. "It really has nothing to do with the other two games. We're glad we won the other two games, but this game is in and of itself a whole different entity, and we have to go play."
Of course, that doesn't mean the Aggies are without context for the game. They know the top priority will be to keep a lid on all-league players Daniel Bejarano and J.J. Avila, who have accounted for more than two-thirds of all points against the Aggies this year. The backcourt will also be tasked with guarding Jon Octeus, who had 22 against Utah State last time.
In both meetings, the Rams have gotten a lot of points at the free throw line, combining for 48 attempts. The Aggies' challenge will be to play the defense of the first two games without fouling as often.
But of course, they've done it before. Twice.
Bad break for Colorado State
At really the worst possible time, the Rams are getting some tough injury news.
On Monday, the Coloradoan reported that starting forward Gerson Santo is out with a broken hand that will end his senior season. The 6-foot-9 Brazilian was most effective as a defensive presence in the post, averaging 5.6 points and 4.1 rebounds per game.
Utah State had him smothered in both contests this year: He didn't score on the Aggies and grabbed 3 total rebounds against them. But the tough news for the Rams is they lose very precious frontcourt depth. The Coloradoan expects Marcus Holt to start for Santo, but said Larry Eustachy may resort to a bit more small-ball tactics.
It may be something of a curveball for Utah State, but having Santo out could help the Aggies keep a rebounding advantage while opening things up for big men Jarred Shaw and Kyle Davis to score inside. Shaw was held to only eight points last time against the Rams.
Restful week entering tournament
Unlike any other team in the tournament this week, the Aggies are coming off a week-long break, their first since taking a bye before Nevada way back in January. It was a chance for Utah State to rest their bodies, gameplan a little longer, and get in the right frame of mind for the tournament - at least one would expect.
Morrill claimed playing a game would have been more favorable than taking a weekend off. At least a few players, however, said it was valuable to have a little extra time.
"Coach has done a really good job of spreading things out over the last few days and getting us prepared," Kyle Davis said.
Parting shot is today's tournament schedule, all times MT:
3 p.m., No. 8 Utah State vs. No. 9 Colorado State
5:30 p.m., No. 7 Fresno State vs. No. 10 Air Force
8 p.m., No. 6 Boise State vs. No. 11 San Jose State
Kyle Goonkgoon@sltrib.comTwitter: @kylegoon
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