Some tears of were shed Sunday afternoon by the Aggies in Las Vegas.
No, they were not crying over having lost in the Mountain West Conference Tournament championship. They were tears of joy as Utah State is going dancing.
The Aggie men’s basketball team received an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament that is being based in Indianapolis this year. USU will be the 11th seed in the South Region and play sixth-seeded Texas Tech on Friday.
“We are excited, obviously, to go to the NCAA Tournament,” Aggie head coach Craig Smith said over a zoom call. “We have our dancing shoes on. I don’t know much about Texas Tech, but I do know they are really well coached. We have work to do. Our goal every year is to get to the NCAA Tournament and win when we get there. We’re excited to be playing.”
The Aggies (20-8) and Red Raiders (17-10) found out late Sunday night their game on Friday will tip off at 11:45 a.m. in Bloomington, Indiana, at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall on the campus of the University of Indiana.
The Aggies had to sweat it out Sunday after losing Saturday afternoon to No. 19 San Diego State, 68-57. The Aztecs got the automatic berth, leaving USU to the fate of the NCAA Selection Committee.
It was just the third time in school history USU received an at-large berth. It will be the 22nd trip to the NCAA Tournament for the Aggies.
“My phone is blowing up; it’s surreal,” Aggie forward Justin Bean said Sunday. “I haven’t had this feeling for a couple of years. Obviously last year we got in, but then we heard the news (of it being canceled due to COVID-19) and that was really disappointing. To have everything turn out with the way the year started says a lot about the grit and fight of this team. We’re ready to make some noise. Our season is not over, so we are pumped.”
USU began the year 1-3, dealt with two shutdowns because of COVID and finished second during the regular season of league play. But they made it to the NCAA Tournament.
“I bubble watch a lot so when I saw Wichita State, who was projected to be a first four out, I was getting a little worried,” Bean said. “But like coach always says, you can only control the controllables. So, we knew it was out of our hands. Thankfully, the committee saw that we are a tournament caliber team with some talent. We deserve to be there.”
Bean and Neemias Queta were named to the all-tournament team Saturday in Las Vegas.
“We have a plane to catch,” Queta quipped before being interviewed Sunday.
USU remained in Las Vegas after the loss Saturday. The top four teams in the Mountain West were asked to do that. The Aggies caught a flight to Indianapolis Sunday evening.
“We were nervous for a little bit,” Queta said. “We didn’t know if we were going to be in. … We worked for this the whole year. When we saw our name, I felt a sense of joy and accomplishment, but at the same time we want to go in there and make sure we go there to win and make a run in the tournament. We are happy to be in the tournament, but we are not satisfied.”
Texas Tech lost its final two games of the season, but they came against Baylor, a No. 1 seed, and nationally ranked Texas. The Red Raiders made it to the national championship game in 2019 — the last year it was held.
“They have been a good team in the Big 12,” Bean said. “They are super athletic. We will go into this knowing they are a really good team. They are a high-caliber team.”
San Diego State is a sixth seed in the Midwest Region and will play 11th-seeded Syracuse Friday night in Indianapolis. In-state rival BYU also got an at-large bid and is a sixth seed in the East Region and will play the winner of Michigan State-UCLA as those two storied programs are part of the First Four. The Cougars will play Saturday night in Indianapolis.
Colorado State is the No. 2 replacement for the tournament and will enter the field if a team from a multiple-bid league tests out. The 68 participating schools are tested for COVID every day and the field will be locked in on Tuesday night. Should a team have positive test results and can’t play after Tuesday, it will be a forfeit and the opponent will advance.
“Our bags are packed and we can’t wait to roll,” Smith said. “We packed for a couple of weeks.”
The winner of the USU-Texas Tech game would play the winner of third-seeded Arkansas and 14th-seeded Colgate on Sunday. The site has not been announced.
Two other Mountain West programs got postseason invites. Colorado State and Boise State will be part of the 16-team NIT, which will be taking place in Texas this year. Boise State takes on SMU on Thursday, while Colorado State faces Buffalo on Friday.