The Utah State men’s basketball team has been here before.
Each of the last two seasons, the Aggies haven’t won the regular season championship in the Mountain West Conference. Each of the last two seasons, they’ve entered the conference tournament as the No. 2 seed. Each of the last two seasons, they haven’t been considered the favorites.
But each of the last two seasons, the Aggies have proved everyone wrong. They won those conference championships and earned automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament. Last season, it took a heroic shot from former guard Sam Merrill.
Now the Aggies will try to do something no USU team has done before: a MW tournament three-peat. They start their journey Thursday against the University of Nevada-Las Vegas after the Rebels beat Air Force on Wednesday. Utah State had a bye in the first round.
“I know it’s a cliche, but it truly is survive and advance,” USU coach Craig Smith told media Wednesday evening in a videoconference. “At this point, it’s a one-game season for almost everybody.”
The Aggies split the two-game series with UNLV during the regular season, losing the first and winning the second. The Rebels have the advantage of playing in their home arena, but there will be no fans throughout the tournament due to the coronavirus pandemic.
UNLV has already played its first game of the tournament. Smith said teams that don’t have a bye in the first round naturally have already overcome some jitters and established some basketball rhythm after having won a game.
“You’re fighting some of that kind of stuff, too, in this quarterfinal game,” Smith said.
MOUNTAIN WEST TOURNAMENT
UTAH STATE VS. UNLV
At Las Vegas
When • Thursday, 7 p.m. MT
TV • CBSSN
No one could play on the biggest college basketball stage last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the tournament is scheduled to occur exclusively in Indiana, with most of it in Indianapolis.
But the Aggies have to get through the conference tournament first. Right now, Utah State is sitting on the bubble for an at-large to the Big Dance in the First Four Out tier, per ESPN’s latest projections. Winning the conference tournament would alleviate the stress that comes with wating to hear USU’s name called on Selection Sunday.
And USU may have lucked out with the bracket. Boise State and San Diego State are on the opposite side of it compared to the Aggies. So Utah State will not have to play two of the conference’s strongest teams until the championship game, if it makes it there.
On the other hand, USU had no problems in the last two years beating San Diego State in the final game of the tournament.
Smith said he feels this year’s tournament is wide open, and even more so this year compared to recent years.
“I think there’s quite a few teams that can win this thing,” Smith said.
The Aggies do have one thing going for them. Since Smith came to Logan to coach the Aggies, the team is 10-1 in the month of March. That record includes a 6-0 mark in the MW tournament.
Utah State will also enter the tournament fully healthy. Smith said freshman point guard Rollie Worster will play and he expects junior guard Brock Miller to play as well. Both have been in an out of the lineup with injuries over the past several weeks.
Senior forward Alphonso Anderson, who was named the conference’s Sixth Man of the Year, said having the team healthy as it starts the tournament is crucial. But, he added, the situation with the coronavirus may have actually helped the Aggies adjust to sudden roster changes. So whether it was an injury or a quarantine, the team was ready.
“I think our team did a good job handling those situations [injuries],” Anderson said. “I feel like COVID kind of helped us with that. You never knew if someone was going to pop positive or something like that. We always had to be ready, play different positions and all types of things like that.”