The Utah State men’s basketball team was flying high, traveling from Las Vegas to Indiana, passing Cloud 9 after Cloud 9 after learning it earned a No. 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament. But Aggies coach Craig Smith plummeted down to earth as he started studying their opponent.
“The exhilaration of being an at-large team and playing the NCAA Tournament dampened real quick,” Smith said.
The Aggies have a challenge ahead of them as they get ready to face Texas Tech on Friday at 11:45 a.m. in the first round of the biggest tournament in college basketball. The Red Raiders hold the No. 6 seed in the tournament and are known for their defense. They rank 28th in the country in that category, holding opponents to just 63.4 points per game.
But the Aggies are no slouches on that end of the floor. In fact, they hold the 15th ranked defense in the country, allowing 62.2 points per game.
Where Utah State really shines is field goal percentage defense. It holds opponents to 38.9% shooting, which ranks ninth in the country.
And it doesn’t hurt that the Aggies have junior center Neemias Queta, who was named the Mountain West Conference defensive player of the year by media and coaches.
“I think they have a defensive identity, no doubt about it,” Texas Tech coach Beard said of USU. “They have a rebounding identity. And then Craig’s teams are always going to play the right way.”
UTAH STATE VS. TEXAS TECH
When • Friday, 11:45 a.m. MT
TV • TNT
Utah State’s defensive identity will be tested against a Red Raiders team that features four players who average double figure scoring. They’re led by Mac McClung (15.2 points per game), followed by Terrance Shannon Jr. (12.7 ppg), Kevin McCullar (10.1 ppg) and Kyler Edwards (10.0).
As a team, Texas Tech averages 73 points per game and boasts a 9.6 scoring margin over opponents. But the Aggies fare slightly better in those metrics, averaging 73.3 points per game and outscoring opponents by 11 points.
With the numbers being so similar, it’s not surprising that Beard not only has the utmost respect for Utah State, but also understands that his team is vulnerable in the first round of the tournament.
“Utah State, they can make a run in this tournament,” Beard said.
The key to the game will likely be turnovers. Texas Tech forces a lot of them, and Utah State has a habit of committing bad ones. The Red Raiders average 17.9 points off turnovers per game.
“We just have to be tough with the ball and make sure we take care of it and make sure we don’t turn it over,” Queta said.
Smith said the Aggies are going to need to work hard to get open by cutting hard and having a purpose on and off the ball.
“They put so much pressure on you and they’re disruptive,” Smith said of Texas Tech. “They’re just going to press you hard. They’re going to work hard to deny catches. They’re going to switch screens. So they make it very, very difficult.”
The Red Raiders will have to contend with a USU team that has Queta as its leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker. And aside from him, junior forward Justin Bean and junior guard Marco Anthony also score in double figures and can rebound and defend well.
But Queta is the focal point on both offense and defense for the Aggies, and he’ll be a focal point of Texas Tech’s defense as well. Beard called Queta “a real pro prospect” and said defending him will take a “multilayered plan.” Junior guard Kyler Edwards agreed.
“Anything to get the ball out of this hands or just anything to stop him, that would be great for us,” Edwards said of defending Queta.
Who advances to the next round of the NCAA Tournament might just come down to who wants it more.
“I know we’re ready to play, I know they’re going to be ready to play,” Smith said. “It comes down to execution and being sound and being fundamental and then finding a way to finish plays.”