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Utah State makes NCAA basketball tournament as a No. 11 seed, will face Texas Tech in opener

Friday’s MWC tourney win over Colorado State was critical in Aggies’ getting back to the Big Dance. Rams didn’t make the field.

(John Locher | AP) Utah State's Neemias Queta drives into UNLV's Cheikh Mbacke Diong during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Utah State, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, in Las Vegas.

Utah State junior forward Justin Bean is a self-proclaimed bubble watcher. So as he sat with this teammates and coaches in a meeting room of their Las Vegas hotel, he started to get nervous when Wichita State earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament on Sunday afternoon.

But then the Aggies were chosen by the NCAA Selection Committee as the No. 11 seed in the Big Dance, pitting them against No. 6 Texas Tech in the South Region at 11:45 a.m. MDT Friday. Bean’s mood changed instantly at that point.

“Just to have everything turn out the way it did after a rough start to the year just says a lot about this team and the grit and the fight and the belief we have in each other,” Bean said. “We’re ready to make some noise. Our season’s not over, so we’re pumped.”

Both ESPN and CBS prognosticators had the Aggies likely as one of the Last Four In teams, which would have relegated them to win in a play-in game in order to compete in the 68-team bracket. Coach Craig Smith, who has repeatedly stated he doesn’t pay any attention to bracketologists, said he relied on some members of his staff who paid more attention to those metrics.

In fact, Smith said, Sunday was the first time he looked at the Twitter account of ESPN’s most prominent bracketologist.

Bean tweeted that he could “cry a whole bucket of happy tears.” While it may not have been a literal bucket, Bean confirmed that he did get emotional when USU was picked for the tournament.

“I did shed a few tears,” Bean said. “Hopefully none of that got documented on any cameras. Coach knows how to tell a good speech as well. So he got some of us for sure.”

The Aggies finished the season 20-8 overall after losing to the San Diego State Aztecs in Saturday’s Mountain West Conference Tournament championship game. Their NCAA NET ranking stood at 39 Sunday. That’s a position that was similar to two years ago, which gave Smith some confidence going into Selection Sunday.

“I woke up really calm,” Smith said. “I just felt good about where we were at.”

The Aggies beat the Aztecs in the tournament title game in each of the previous two seasons. No college basketball team played in the NCAA Tournament last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Texas Tech Raiders are out of the Big 12 conference and finished 17-16 overall, with a 9-8 conference record. The Raiders narrowly lost to the the Texas Longhorns in the Big 12 Tournament quarterfinals.

The Aggies fought through some bouts of adversity this season. They started the season 1-3. They had two nonconference games canceled due to COVID-19. Then Smith tested positive, and the team lost three games on its schedule due to more coronavirus problems. To top it off, starting guards Rollie Worster and Brock Miller dealt with injuries down the stretch of the season.

But USU did just enough to earn the at-large bid, including pulling out a tight game against Colorado State in the conference tournament semifinal. The win over the Rams was critical. The Aggies avoided the play-in game, which meant they weren’t a tough call for the selection committee.

“Utah State had the best NET among the teams that we had on our under-consideration board on Saturday night,” said Mitch Barnhart, athletic director at Kentucky and chair of the NCAA Tournament selection committee. “Their two wins over San Diego State were of high quality. ... They won two of three [games] against some fellow programs that were under consideration in a team like Colorado State.

“They’ve obviously had a remarkable year. They’re a talented group of basketball players and [we] think they were worthy of an at-large bid.”

The Aggies enter the NCAA Tournament healthy and hungry.

“We deserve to be there,” Bean said. “We believe that. We know that we have the tools on this team to make a run.”

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