It’s Tuesday night. It’s dinner time. It’s the week the Utah State Aggies are back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011 and Craig Smith is going on and on about how his team has been living on the edge for nearly five months, about toeing that line between bubble burster and conference champs, about Sam Merrill’s inability to care about anything other than winning, about Diogo Brito not pouting over a bench role that has changed the fortunes of these Aggies, about Quin Taylor, who Smith calls, “The Godfather.”
Smith doesn’t stop. He’s still going. Five minutes after he’s asked how much sleep he’s getting at the moment, Utah State’s head coach is now riffing about how the staff finally found a role for Abel Porter, one of several reasons the Aggies are 28-6 now, Mountain West champs, an eighth seed in the NCAA Tournament Friday, and the list can go on and on. Smith circles back.
“Sleep? Not much,” said the MWC Coach of the Year..
To those who have followed the Aggies’ sudden, steep rise in Year 1 under Smith, they’ll understand that this is undeniably Craig Smith, a guy whose boss, USU athletic director John Hartwell, aptly describes him as, “24-7-365.” The remodel, reconfiguration, rebuild or whatever you want to call it got done in about 10 months, which is saying something about Smith, his staff, the players they inherited, the players they brought in and the living, breathing, sports-crazed, Aggie-centric culture that is the Cache Valley.
And there are the Aggies, comfortably in Columbus, Ohio, awaiting their first-round NCAA Tournament matchup with the No. 9 seed Washington Huskies. They’ve won 17 of 18. They’ve swiftly shifted the narrative surrounding the USU basketball program behind their first-year coach from greatness in the past tense to very much in the present. Smith’s no-brakes, no-rest, full-bore style is one of the best stories of March Madness.
“That’s Craig Smith,” Hartwell said this week. “There’s no hidden agenda. Very much what you see is what you get.”
What Smith got, was a team that a year ago finished 17-17, was at the bottom of nearly every defensive statistical category in the MWC, a team that was dead-last in free throws attempted, a group that had all the makings of something like this, but needed a style to fit, and needed a voice.
“We just never really found consistency or a true identity,” said MWC Player of the Year Sam Merrill. “This year, we’ve had guys make improvements where maybe others wouldn’t have thought they could.”
Smith, once again, rolls on. For five-plus minutes, he touches on the game slowing down for Porter, for Brito, for Brock Miller, about how Neemias Queta has unlimited potential and that we’re only seeing glimpses of it now. He goes on about how USU is one of the few teams in the MWC that doesn’t take charter flights to and from games, about the 4 a.m. wake-up calls to catch commercial flights and then a bus home. Then, after explaining how USU went from being a turnover-prone team a year ago to being ranked in the top 10 in total assists nationwide, Smith remembers something that he’s beyond proud of:
These Aggies haven’t lost back-to-back games all season.
“This team has it,” Smith said. “They have that factor.”
Not to mention the right coach, which Hartwell knew was a priority in order to get USU hoops back to where it was for so many decades. Nearly a year ago, Hartwell and Smith met in Chicago for an interview that was slated to last only over an hour. It went two hours and 30 minutes long. And could’ve kept going.
“The pedestal that Utah State basketball has been on in the past and with so many people identifying with that, yes, that’s really important,” Hartwell said. “Everybody [in Logan] wants us to win.”
Hartwell said there was a five-year-long decline in season-ticket holders during the dip in the program. The 2018-19 season has had “a huge response” from the USU faithful for next year and beyond. The Aggies, after all, have only two seniors on this roster. This thing could just be getting started.
“When you look at what is returning, this is not built as a one-hit wonder,” Hartwell said. “Craig has the foundation for sustained success in our league and he and I have had the conversation. It’s much easier to be the pursuer than it is to be the pursued.”
That’s a conversation for next year. Right now, the Aggies are in the Midwest. Smith is a Midwest guy, having grown up in tiny Stephen, Minn. Population: around 650. He’s expecting loads of family members, friends and former players to arrive in Columbus on Friday in hopes of seeing this magnificent surprise season potentially continue on.
“Reflecting back, I haven’t allowed myself to do that a ton, but every now and then I think of where we were last summer, to where we are now, and it’s like, ‘Holy Hannah!’” Smith said. “It’s incredible the improvement that this team has made. It’s literally incredible.”
NO. 8 UTAH STATE VS. NO. 9 WASHINGTON
At Nationwide Arena, Columbus, Ohio
Tipoff • Friday, 4:50 p.m.
TV • TNT
Records • USU 28-6, Washington 26-8
Last meeting • Washington, 75-61, win in first round of 2006 NCAA Tournament
About the Aggies • USU’s eighth seed in the tournament is the highest in program history. ... This will be the Aggies’ 21st appearance in the NCAA Tournament all-time. ... USU’s 28 wins are third-most in school history and 11th-most in the nation this season. ... Junior guard Sam Merrill (21.2 PPG, 4.2 APG, 4.0 RPG) is the MWC Player of the Year. ... Freshman center Neemias Queta won the MWC Defensive Player of the Year as well as Freshman of the Year. ... The Aggies have won 17 of their last 18 games and have not lost back-to-back games all season.
About the Huskies • Like USU, Washington returns to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011. ... UW won the Pac-12 regular-season title, but fell to Pac-12 tournament champs Oregon in Las Vegas. ... Senior guard Matisse Thybulle is the two-time Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and is nominated for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year award. ... Coach Mike Hopkins has won Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors in his first two seasons in Seattle. ... Sophomore Jaylen Nowell averages 16.2 PPG and shots 50 percent from the field.