BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- It’s been two decades since Utah State has truly been able to enjoy March Madness.
Sure, the Aggies have liked being part of the Big Dance. Heck, they have been downright giddy to earn at-large berths. But now it’s time to do more than just play in the NCAA Tournament.
The Aggies take on No. 21 Texas Tech Friday in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament at Skjodt Assembly Hall on the campus of Indiana University. USU, the 11th seed in the South Region, will face the sixth-seeded Red Raiders with tip off at 11:45 a.m. The game will be televised on TNT.
“Our goal every year is to get to the NCAA Tournament, but the expectations are higher now,” USU head coach Craig Smith said during a zoom press conference Thursday after the team practiced. “The goal is get to the NCAA Tournament and win when we get there. We’ve been steadfast with that message. We’ve done it for three straight years, second year playing in the NCAA Tournament because last year was canceled. This is what we recruit to, what we talk about. We are not just talking about, we do it.”
The Aggies (20-8) are not strangers to the NCAA Tournament. In fact, this will be their 10th trip to the Big Dance since 2001. However, they enter this game against the Red Raiders (17-10) having lost the last eight games. The last win came in 2001, a 77-68 victory in overtime against Ohio State when USU was a 12th seed.
Texas Tech is no stranger to the big stage. In fact, the last time the tournament was held in 2019, the Red Raiders made it all the way to the championship.
Smith was asked Thursday how a one measures the “want it more” factor.
“I know we are going to want it badly and they are going to want it badly,” Smith said. “That’s the DNA of both programs. Both have the same type of mentality. You are what you emphasize. There's a lot of the same emphasis on both teams. Now it becomes, who is quicker to the ball, who is more instinctive to the ball, who’s the most disciplined team, who can make the most plays. I think we will both be chomping at the bit.
“… I know we are ready to play. I know they will be ready to play. It comes down to execution, being sound and being fundamental, finding a way to finish plays. I know we are ready, but now we have to execute. At the end of the day, we need to find a way to win.”
Smith and Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard have been compared a lot the past few days. They are similar in their approach to the game, which also makes it tough on both in preparing.
Both coaches have created cultures of strong defense and unselfish play. USU gives up 62.4 points a game, holds opponents under 40 percent shooting and is among the national leaders in assists with 16. 3 per game. Texas Tech allows a Big 12 low 63.4 points per game, forces 16 turnovers an outing and has five players averaging 8.5 points a game.
The Red Raiders have guard Mac McLung who has connected on 33.3 percent of his 129 3-point attempts this year. The Aggies counter with Brock Miller, who has attempted 149 shots from beyond the arc and made 36.9 percent.
“We compare them to us on the offensive end, very balanced, we are very balanced,” Smith said. “It’s not uncommon for us to have five guys in double digits. … They have some higher-level athletes, but sheer style of play is like us.”
With the teams playing a similar style, is it easier or harder to prepare?
“Probably harder,” Smith said. “Can we get them here, can we attack them, just not a whole lot of holes. Need to take advantage of those opportunities when we get them. We hang our hats on defense. We know defense travels. But, we have been pretty good on offense.”
Leading the Aggies is center Neemias Queta with 15.1 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 3.2 blocks a game. Justin Bean adds 11.3 points and 7.7 rebounds an outing, while Marco Anthony is at 10.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.1 assists.
The Red Raiders counter with four players in double digits in scoring with McLung (15.7), Terrence Shannon, Jr. (12.7), Kevin McCullar (10.1) and Marcus Santos-Silva (10.0). Kyler Edeards leads the team in rebounding with 6.5 an outing, while also scoring 8.5.
Out of the teams USU has played this season, Smith would compare Texas Tech to San Diego State because of its athleticism.
“I have taken a lot of Tylenol for sure, because they are a headache,” Smith said of the Red Raiders.”They are a very good team, very well coached. They are very disciplined, very tough minded and play incredibly hard. We are excited for the challenge. We know we have our work cut out for us. What a great opportunity.”
It took the Aggies a couple of days to get over “giddiness” of being at the NCAA Tournament, but they have settled in now.
“You go from sheer exhilaration from watching on Sunday and being on the bubble to trying to prepare for Texas Tech,” Smith said. “They are very elite defensively. They make life difficult. They just swarm to the ball in a major way.
“... When they create those turnovers, most of the time it feels like they make you pay with dunks and layups the other way real quick. That will be a big key for us is avoiding catastrophic turnovers.”
Other keys include being disciplined on defense and keeping Texas Tech off the offensive glass.
“The Red Raiders crash the offensive boards and get the ball 36 percent of the time off of their misses,” Smith said. “That’s at an elite level. Whatever team can hold the other to one and done will be a major stat.
“We have to rebound. They are very athletic. “We have to be sound on offense. I feel we have improved with two true freshman point guards. But every now and then it rears its ugly head. We just have to find a way to score. We will have our work cut out for us.”
One big thing the Aggies have going for them is Queta. The 7-footer has been on a tear of late. The Red Raiders tallest start is Santos-Silva at 6-foot-7. They have a handful of 6-7 athletes that come off the bench.
“I think they will do it in a lot of different ways,” Smith said when asked about how Texas Tech would try and defend Queta. “The Silva kid will be on him, sure double the post and throw a lot of different guys at him, I’m guessing. We’ve seen about every imaginable double team this year. … They are well trained. They are used to playing big guys in the Big 12 all the time.”
Last week at the Mountain West Conference Tournament, Queta averaged 18.3 points, 11.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 5.0 blocks a game.
“We are going to compete,” Smith said. “They want to make the game a street fight and do a great job of that, and I think we do a good job of making the game ugly. It makes for an interesting match up. We are excited to go out there and compete and see what we can do against the best.”
The Aggies are hoping it all adds up to a win for the first time in two decades in the NCAA Tournament.