The morning following a history-making victory, Craig Smith’s voice was still quite hoarse, because it’s always quite hoarse. Utah State’s first-year head coach had plenty of reason to yell in the nervy 100-96 road win at Colorado State Tuesday night that clinched at the very least a share of the Mountain West Conference regular-season crown. And once Smith worked his way into the locker room, pandemonium set in for a group that was, frankly, given zero shot of this from outsiders back in the fall.
Good thing outsiders don’t rebound as well as anyone in the country or clamp down defensively. Just a few days after USU’s upset win over then No. 12-ranked Nevada 81-76 at the Spectrum in Logan, the Aggies survived another team’s best shot to improve to 25-6 and 15-3 in MWC play. They knew what was riding on the game, a guarantee of a conference title, and even more, a necessary win to further boost their postseason resume.
“Pressure is a privilege, so we welcome that, and quite frankly, we’ve been playing like that the entire year, ever since the first bracketology came out,” Smith told The Salt Lake Tribune. “We’ve been on that bubble or in that projected ‘in’ or projected ‘just out’ literally since the time that came out. We’ve had this privilege of having our name right there the last three months. That’s all our guys know.”
USU, winners of 14 out of its last 15, now has a week-long wait before the start of the 2019 MWC tournament in Las Vegas, Nev. They’ll either be the No. 1 or the No. 2 seed depending on Nevada’s regular-season finale at home against San Diego State Saturday night. A Nevada loss to SDSU makes USU the outright MWC champs. A Nevada win would give the Wolf Pack the No. 1 seed because, while USU and Nevada split their head-to-head matchups this year, the first tiebreaker is records against the next-best teams. The Wolf Pack swept Fresno State, while the Aggies split against the Bulldogs.
A quick refresher on how a team qualifies for the NCAA Tournament: automatic bids are awarded to teams that win conference tournaments. Every other program is considered an at-large bid from the tournament selection committee, which judges the merits of wins, losses, strength of opponents, etc. Which leads to the inevitable bubble chatter. College basketball analysts have been writing and forecasting for months what teams have “work to do” or are, by the metrics of what the committee looks at, locks for The Dance in a few weeks.
Where does USU stand at the moment?
Some outlets have them in, convinced the win over Nevada and avoiding upset at Colorado State is enough. CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm has USU as a No. 9 seed placed in the Midwest side of the bracket in Columbus, Ohio. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has USU also as a No. 9 seed in the South bracket in Columbia, S.C. John Gasaway of ESPN, however, has the Aggies still on the “work to do” side of things.
“USU really has only two remaining dangers,” Gasaway writes. “One is a shrinking bubble, and the other would be an ostentatiously early exit from the conference tournament in Las Vegas.”
Considering where the program has gone this year, from being chosen ninth in a preseason poll to potentially finishing first overall, some say it’s hard to imagine USU not already being a lock for what would be its first tournament appearance since 2011 — even before the ball tips in Sin City next week.
“Nobody in their right mind thought that Utah State would be anywhere near this position,” said analyst Jeff Goodman of WatchStadium.com. “I don’t see how the committee wouldn’t put them in. I’d be shocked, I think it would be a travesty if Utah State does not make the NCAA Tournament.”
After the win over Nevada, USU junior star guard Sam Merrill said he believes the Aggies are among the top 64 teams in the country. “I just hope they’re watching us,” Merrill said of the committee. Smith, obviously, shares that sentiment.
WHERE MIGHT THE AGGIES DANCE?
• Projection from ESPN’s Joe Lunardi: No. 8 VCU vs No. 9 USU in Columbia, S.C. in South Region
• Projection from CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm: No. 8 Baylor vs. No. 9 USU in Columbus, Ohio in Midwest Region
• Projection from USA Today Sports’ Shelby Mast and Scott Gleeson: No. 7 Iowa State vs. No. 10 USU in Des Moines, Iowa in South Region
“We have a great resume, we took care of business, we have a share of the regular-season Mountain West title,” he said. “I think that speaks volumes.”
Some recent projections even had USU playing the West region — at Vivint Smart Home Arena. In Salt Lake City. After the scene at the Spectrum in Logan last weekend following the win over Nevada, it’s easy to get carried away thinking of the home-court advantage this potential No. 8 or No. 9 seed could have.
“That would be incredible,” said Smith, “but at the same time, we’d be excited to play anywhere in the country and represent Utah State and the state of Utah well.”
These Aggies have already taken that on this year. Clearly the best college basketball team in the state, the Aggies are among the youngest teams in the country, dressing six freshmen out of 12 players each night. They are also among the top defensive rebounding teams in the country, top defensive teams in the country, and are in the top 10 in assisted field goals made.
“They’ve exceeded expectations like no other team in the country, in my opinion,” Goodman said.
USU has simply found ways to do it, battling through a nearly three-week-long stretch in which a nasty flu bug decimated the team. The Aggies evolved week by week, mostly by sticking to the script Smith and his staff handed to them so many months ago.
“Our guys made history,” the coach said. “For the rest of our lives, the young men in our program will have a bond that will never be taken away.”
There are still games to be played. More people to surprise. All of which that will leave Smith with an even raspier voice.