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A look at Utah State men’s basketball’s chances to make the NCAA Tournament

The Aggies are projected as a bubble team, but could make some headway in the next few games.

Utah State guard Marco Anthony (44) dribbles the ball as San Diego State forward Keshad Johnson (0) defends during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP, Pool)

The Utah State men’s basketball team is now past the halfway point of the Mountain West Conference season. It holds a 10-2 conference record, and a 13-5 mark overall.

But now that it’s nearly February and conference tournaments are a little more than a month away, the big question is: How likely are the Aggies to quality for the NCAA Tournament?

The Aggies have had to win the MWC tournament championship in order to qualify for the Big Dance in each of the last two seasons. Last year, USU made it after a dagger 3-pointer by Sam Merrill only to have COVID-19 force the tournament’s cancellation altogether.

The Aggies got off to a rough start only to run off 11 straight victories, including two against San Diego State. Utah State lost two straight after that — a rare occurrence under coach Craig Smith — and bounced back with a vintage performance against the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

With eight games left in the conference schedule, Utah State is projected as a team on the bubble of a 68-team bracket. ESPN has the Aggies in the “Next Four Out” category, while CBS predicts them to be among the “First Four In.” The latter would make USU one of the top four seeds in the National Invitation Tournament.

Utah State’s NET ranking — another measure used by the selection committee — stands at 55. That’s after losing consecutive games to Colorado State and UNLV. Before those losses, some prognosticators had the Aggies as a No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

To give themselves the least headache, the Aggies can ill afford any more losses to lesser teams. Losing the first game to UNLV was considered an upset.

Of the eight games Utah State has left, four of them are in Quadrant 3, while two each are in Quadrant 1 and 4. The lower the quadrant number, the more weight a win has in eyes of the selection committee. The higher the quadrant number, a loss holds more weight.

The next two games for the Aggies are on the road against Fresno State, which is in Quadrant 3 due to its NET ranking and the location where the teams will play the game. USU’s final two games are at home against Nevada, also in Quadrant 3.

Those four games are essentially must-wins for the Aggies. As are the two home games against Wyoming, which is in Quadrant 4. Wyoming is just 4-5 in conference play, Fresno State is 6-6 and Nevada is 5-5.

Then there are two road games against Boise State, which is in Quadrant 1 and 9-1 in the conference. Those two games will certainly be the most difficult of the season for the Aggies, and winning at least one could go a long way in the eyes of the committee, especially because they’re on the road.

But no one on the Aggies is putting much stock into their potential March Madness positioning — at least not publicly. Smith said it’s evident that the team’s goal is to qualify for the tournament, but it’s against the furthest wall in the back of his mind.

“We can’t control what happens around the country,” Smith said. “As the head coach and for our players, all we can do is be the best that we can be. And if we’re good enough, we’ll make it. If we’re not good enough, we won’t make it. It’s really that simple.”

Freshman point guard Rollie Worster shares Smith’s sentiment, but did say the team understands the importance of the last stretch of the season.

“Every game matters,” Worster said. “You can’t overlook an opponent or look past too far into the future. We just have to take it week by week, game by game, and just do our thing. And ultimately, we will achieve that goal if we handle things that way.”

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