Utah State basketball team faces uphill climb to return to NCAA Tournament, but it’s still possible

Utah State guard Abel Porter (15) shoots as Nevada guard Jazz Johnson (22) and guard Lindsey Drew (14) defend during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP)

The Utah State men’s basketball team’s run to the NCAA Tournament last season is mostly a blur to senior guard Abel Porter. All he can really remember is the Aggies had a way about them. A groove. A collective trust in their personnel and style of play.

It was those things that propelled the Aggies to one of their best seasons in school history. Around this time last year, Utah State had won 21 games and boasted an 11-3 record against Mountain West Conference opponents. That was with four games left in the regular season schedule.

The Aggies ended up winning those last four games and, eventually, the conference tournament that followed. Becoming champions in the conference for the regular season and the tournament champs led to a bid in the NCAA Tournament.

Now with four conference games left in this 2019-20 season, the Aggies are a bit behind in terms of win pace compared to last year. They’re 20-7 overall and 9-5 in the MWC.

And while USU has won of six of its last seven games and is seemingly out of an early January funk, it’s currently projected as one of four teams on the outside looking in to the Big Dance, per Bracket Matrix.


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Some reasons for that could be Utah State’s three-game slide last month, coupled with the overall strength — or lack thereof — of the Mountain West.

“As great as San Diego State is, the Mountain West is still the 10th best conference in the country based on the NCAA’s NET metric,” said Scott Gleeson, national college basketball analyst for USA Today. "That means Utah State’s three consecutive losses at the start of January stain the resume more than meets the eye.”

Gleeson said Utah State’s sole “quality win” was against LSU, adding that with Florida being a team on the bubble, that win isn’t as impressive as once appeared. Tack on a losing road record, and the NCAA Tournament picture looks bleak for the Aggies despite their recent strong stretch.

“That’s not enough to fully entice the committee from a blind resume test standpoint,” Gleeson said.

Aggies senior guard Abel Porter said the team doesn’t pay much attention to the projections, instead opting to focus on each game and keep out as many distractions as possible. But there is some awareness, even if just tangentially.

“I think that we know we’re in a great position and that we just need to keep winning to stay in that position,” Porter said.

The Aggies competed in the Round of 64 in last season’s tournament, losing the University of Washington. Based on current projections, Utah State wouldn’t even have the opportunity to play a game for a chance at the Round of 64.

Teams in the First Four Out category of bracket projections are slated to be No. 1 seeds in the National Invitation Tournament. That’s where the Aggies are right now.

But there’s still a chance at an at-large bid for Utah State. While the conference title is likely out of reach, the Aggies’ next four games are against opponents in the bottom half of the conference.

And if Utah State can make it to the MWC tournament finals, Gleeson thinks that could be enough to make a case for its inclusion in the NCAA Tournament.

“Establishing itself as the second-best team in the MWC will hold merit, even if the committee doesn’t consider conference rankings because SDSU will be eyeing a No. 1 seed,” Gleeson said.

This season is Porter’s last at Utah State — he has his undergrad degree and closing in on his masters — despite having another year of eligibility after this one. He said he wants to end up with a bid to the NCAA Tournament not just for him, but also for his fellow senior and friend Sam Merrill.

Freshman guard Sean Bairstow also said it would mean a great to him personally if the Aggies got to the Big Dance.

“It’d be a dream come true, to be honest,” Bairstow said.

Aside from the personal pride, Porter said he wants Utah State to make a tournament run because of what it would say about the program as a whole.

“That’s just the culture and the program that we want to build here,” Porter said.