Underdogs no more, Sam Merrill is confident his Utah State Aggies won’t assume that, even though this season has been quite the ride, that come Thursday evening in Las Vegas it’ll be a cake walk. Quite the opposite, in fact. The junior guard who was named the Mountain West Conference’s Player of the Year Tuesday said USU’s 25-6 record, its 15-3 stretch in conference play, its dominance in regular season awards will mean nothing when the ball is tossed at center court in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West Conference tournament.
“We understand that anything can happen in a tournament like this,” he said.
He’s not just saying it. Last year, USU was the No. 7 seed upsetting then No. 2-seeded Boise State in the quarterfinal round. There are no guarantees. Everything that’s happened leading up to this week in Vegas is great, no doubt, but it’s time for a hard reset. USU coach Craig Smith reiterated that to his team this week.
“Coach was talking to us today and he was telling us in tournaments like this, sometimes you get the best out of people that you haven’t necessarily been seeing all year,” Merrill added. “We know we have to be ready. We’re excited for the opportunity, we want to win this whole thing. We’re not focused on anything but this week, so hopefully we can take care of business.”
MOUNTAIN WEST TOURNAMENT
UTAH STATE VS. NEW MEXICO
At the Thomas and Mack Center, Las Vegas
When • Thursday, 7 p.m.
TV • CBSSN
USU, this year’s No. 2 seed, will face No. 7 seed New Mexico Thursday night in Vegas. Asked this week how the staff balanced prepping for two teams, Smith said after USU’s regular-season finale win at Colorado State, the team was given some days off to recharge mentally and physically.
“Our guys are very diligent and I think our preparation really gives our guys confidence,” Smith said this week. “We have an intelligent, smart team and you don't want to overload them. I was just talking with some of the guys and that's what they wanted to do. The best way to learn is to over-learn and certainly it helps that this is our third time playing these guys. We have a pretty good feel for what's going on."
Some college basketball experts believe USU is a lock for the NCAA Tournament, while others considering the Aggies on the bubble a bit, needing to avoid a shocking early MWC conference tournament exit to get in on the merits of this so-far great season. It’s tournament time, regardless, and the weight of every game features more pressure than any that came before it.
Smith’s confidence in this team’s style of play and ability to adapt to these knockout games is high. He reiterated that USU ended No. 1 in the country in defensive rebounding percentage, No. 4 in the country in 2-point field goal percentage and No. 10 in total defensive field goal percentage. Defense travels from arena to arena, he believes.
“When you have those kind of numbers,” he said, “it dictates that you can win any way.”
Smith joked this week proclaiming a saying he regulars: “Coaches get paid to be paranoid.” Meaning, coaches must find a way to get their team comfortable as possible anywhere in the country, especially when it comes to games in March. The Aggies, picked ninth in the MWC preseason poll, might’ve snuck up on teams early on, but no longer. They’re known — especially in conference.
“We can’t let the March Madness get to us, and it’s still just another game, although it’s not going to feel like just another game,” he said. “That’s what has been exciting is we have risen to the occasion in a major way in the last two months and truly believe we can beat anybody, anywhere at any given time."