BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — For a half, there was plenty of optimism for Aggie men’s basketball fans.
Utah State, an 11th seed, was holding its own despite a baker’s dozen in turnovers against No. 21 Texas Tech, the sixth seed in the South Region in a First Round game of the NCAA Tournament. That had brought smiles to the blue-clad fans at Assembly Hall on the campus of Indiana University on Friday afternoon.
One of those smiles was on the face of USU President Noelle Cockett — though it was hard to see as everyone in attendance was required to wear masks.
“We are going to win,” said Cockett in an interview with The Herald Journal during halftime. “My husband, John, told me the Mountain West has not won a game in the NCAA Tournament for a while. I think we need to change that.”
The Aggies were ahead at the break, 26-23. However, Texas Tech rallied in the second half and advanced with a 65-53 win, ending the season for USU and not getting a win for the Mountain West Conference.
While many were a little surprised on Sunday when USU received an at-large berth, Cockett was not among that group. It was just the third time in school history that the Aggies got an at-large berth.
“I was not surprised,” Cockett said. “I thought we had been doing so well during conference play. The big decision in the Mountain West was whether we would get four teams in. So, that was a little disappointing for just us and San Diego State. But, I’m glad it was Utah State.”
It certainly has been an interesting season for the Aggies and dealing with COVID-19 protocols. Twice USU had to shut down because of the virus, but they came back and finished second in the league and made it to the conference tournament championship game.
“Our team, the staff, athletic staff, the coaching staff and the student athletes, how resilient they have been to go through the testing each week,” Cockett said.
“There have been different controls on practicing and social distancing in their housing, in classes. My hat is off to our student athletes for their resilience.”
Since last week, the Aggies have been tested every day for COVID. That was a big reason no fans were allowed at the MW Tournament — to cut down on chances of the spread to a team. However, USU did allow some fans this past season and Cockett feels they made a difference in home games, as head coach Craig Smith has also commented on.
“Even with a tenth of our normal crowd at the Spectrum, I thought our crowd still did a great job cheering on the Aggies,” Cockett said. “... And I’m really happy we could have some fans and family be able to come to the NCAA Tournament and watch the team.”
The success of the basketball program has been good for the whole university, the president said. Smith has been at the helm for three years and guided the Aggies to making the NCAA Tournament all three seasons, even though last year’s tournament was canceled.
“It’s bringing attention from outside, but what I think is the best thing is it’s drawing the Aggie family, the Aggie community together,” Cockett said. “The number of people that have sent out their support and good wishes for this game is just tremendous. I think we are just starting to gel as a whole community. Cache Valley is supporting us, the state of Utah is supporting us and all of our Aggie friends.”
During the interview with Cockett, former USU football coach and player Matt Wells came by. He is now the head football coach at Texas Tech, but has remained close with many Aggies, including Smith.
“He has the wrong colors on,” Cockett said with a laugh. “… It’s always great to see him (Wells) and he is such a good friend. He called Craig Smith before the game to wish him luck.”
“I’ve still got a lot of that (pointing to blue) in my house,” Wells responded. “I will always bleed Aggie blue.”
Cockett has enjoyed the enthusiasm of Smith as well as recent hires by athletics director John Hartwell.
“Our new women’s basketball coach Kayla Ard, our new football coach Blake Anderson, they also have that,” Cockett said. “Big personality, big enthusiasm all across the athletic department. Let’s go.”
With all the success, how long until a big school comes along and tries to hire Smith away? There are already rumors. When asked about keeping Smith at USU, Cockett replied: “No comment.”
After a pause, she said: “Of course we want him to stay. I talked to Darcy (Smith’s wife) last night and her kids really love it here. Landon, their oldest son, is in his second year of college (at USU) and is in one of the fraternities and seems to be doing really good.”
Cockett is not going to worry about that until she has to. But with the Aggies losing, she will have to find something else to do in Indiana, as she was planning on staying to watch more Aggies games.