Utah State teetering on the NCAA Tournament bubble after sweeping Nevada at home

CBS doesn’t have the Aggies in the at-large picture, but their NCAA NET ranking rose six spots.

Utah State forward Justin Bean (34) shoots as San Jose State guard Richard Washington (22) defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP)

The Utah State men’s basketball was facing a potential Sisyphus-like uphill climb to an at-large NCAA Tournament bid after losing back-to-back road games to Boise State last week. The defense was struggling, two starters were ailing and the regular-season calendar was dwindling.

Losing to the Broncos hurt the Aggies, not only because the teams are rivals, but also because Boise State is in the NCAA’s Quadrant 1, where a win makes the most impact on a team’s NET ranking. And for a mid-major program like Utah State, those kinds of games are usually few and far between.

But the Aggies put themselves in slightly better position after consecutive home wins over Nevada, a Quadrant 3 team, upping their NET ranking to 49. It was 55 after the losses to the Broncos. Against the Wolf Pack, the Aggies looked much more like their old selves defensively, guards Brock Miller and Rollie Worster are on the mend, and they got two games back on their schedule.

The latest predictions released Monday from CBS Sports don’t have the Aggies in the at-large picture at all — not even on the bubble. The outlet did, however, have three other Mountain West Conference teams in: San Diego State, Colorado State and Boise State.

ESPN’s latest projections, however, have the Aggies on the bubble us one of the “First Four Out.” Before the series against Nevada, ESPN placed the Aggies in the “Next Four Out” group — still on the bubble, but more on the outside looking in.

In terms of potentially winning the conference championship in the regular season, the Aggies are in the hunt. Only two losses separate the first- and fourth-place teams in the standings, and Utah State is third at 13-4. Wyoming and Fresno State are on deck on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.

Aggies coach Craig Smith said winning Sunday’s game that was a “huge step” toward winning the regular-season title.

“Obviously you want to be in this position where you have a chance to win a regular-season championship,” Smith said. “We’re in that position and we’ll see what happens. So much of it is out of our control.”

But what is in USU’s control is how it treats the final two games on its schedule.

The Aggies haven’t played Wyoming yet this season due to a postponement of their two-game series in mid-February due to COVID-19. But on Thursday, they’ll be hosting a team that is No. 186 in the NET rankings and just 6-8 in the Mountain West. That game for the Aggies is in Quadrant 4.

As for Fresno State on Saturday, the location of it puts it in Quadrant 3 for Utah State, which will hold more weight if the Aggies win. USU already has one road victory over the Bulldogs under its belt this season.

Junior forward Justin Bean said after Friday’s win over Nevada that every game is important down the stretch of the season.

“We want to be peaking at the right time,” Bean said. “We don’t want to be trending the other way. So it’s really important for us to just take each day one day at a time and just focus on getting better, not getting content — even with a win like this against a good team.”

The biggest takeaway for the Aggies after the two-game series against the Wolf Pack was its play on the defensive end. Of note Sunday was the fact that Nevada outshot USU from the field and from the 3-point line, but the Aggies won by 21.

“I feel like that’s going to be really important for us to keep winning and to get another [tournament] championship,” Aggies center Neemias Queta said of the team’s defense.

A tournament championship will gets Utah State into the Big Dance automatically, but there’s still an outside chance it squeak in without that.

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