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Utah State awaits NCAA Tournament fate after 68-57 loss to San Diego State

The Aggies failed to earn an automatic bid to the Big Dance by losing the Mountain West Conference tournament championship game.

The Utah State bench reacts as Utah State guard Brock Miller (22) sinks a 3-point shot during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against San Diego State in the championship of the Mountain West Conference men's tournament Saturday, March 13, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

Now, the waiting starts.

After two consecutive seasons of beating San Diego State in the Mountain West Conference tournament championship game and getting an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, the sneaker is on the other foot for the Utah State men’s basketball team.

The Aggies lost 68-57 to the Aztecs on Saturday, leaving no doubt the No. 19 SDSU will get a chance to make a run in the Big Dance. Utah State, however, has to sit anxiously as the Selection Committee decides if it’s worthy of a place among college basketball’s elite.

“Hopefully we’ll see [Sunday] what our fate is,” a somber junior center Neemias Queta said after the game.

The field of 68 teams will be placed in the bracket on Sunday afternoon. Teams that have already won their conference tournaments are guaranteed a spot, while the rest will be evaluated by their records and strength of schedules.

Coming into Saturday’s game, USU had jumped to No. 37 in the NCAA NET rankings, the main measure by which teams are evaluated. Losing to the Aztecs will likely not change that ranking much because it represented a Quadrant 1 game.

But the Aggies were already on the bubble, with some projections putting them as one of the last teams to score an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Other projections, however, had the Aggies out.

If Utah State doesn’t get chosen to participate in the tournament, it will likely receive a bid to the National Invitation Tournament. Coach Craig Smith said he hasn’t thought about whether the Aggies will accept an invitation to that competition, but it seems likely they will.

“We want to play basketball,” Smith said. “We’ve been steadfast in that all year. We want to play. Our guys love to compete. Our guys love to play.”

Losing in the conference tournament championship game is an unfamiliar position for the Aggies. Despite being the No. 2 seed each of the last two seasons, they were able to prevail. They got to play an NCAA Tournament game in 2019, but didn’t get one last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Missing out last year left the team wanting to conjure that same magic this year. But Saturday’s loss might prevent that from happening.

“It’s tough,” Smith said. “It’s tough.”

San Diego State beat Utah State at its own game. The Aztecs outdefended and outhustled the Aggies. They beat the Aggies in the paint. They even had more blocks than the Aggies.

Other than Queta and junior forward Justin Bean, no USU player scored in double figures, and the guards struggled mightily. Smith said he chose to extend the minutes of his more experienced players.

Still, SDSU didn’t blow out USU. It just made more plays than the Aggies did.

“In a game like this where it’s two very even teams and two teams that are as good as they are defensively, there’s just a play here and a play there that can just change the game,” Smith said. “That’s how it goes.”

Turnovers also killed the Aggies. They had 16 giveaways to San Diego State’s nine, and so many of them seemed to come at crucial moments in the game. Queta said his team “left a lot of plays on the floor” and called many of the turnovers “catastrophic.”

For a team that likes to say “control the controllables,” the Aggies’ fate is now squarely out of their control. But Smith still tried to keep perspective.

“We’ve been on the bubble for three straight years,” Smith said. “That’s where we’re at. … If we’re good enough, we’ll make it.”

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