Having already punched their ticket to the Big Dance, the Aggies just needed a first opponent and a venue to begin March Madness.
Both of those missing parts were unveiled Sunday afternoon during the CBS Selection Show. The Utah State men’s basketball team will play Washington in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday at Nationwide Arena. Tipoff is set for 4:45 p.m. MT and will be televised nationally on TNT.
The Aggies (28-6) will be the eighth seed in the Midwest Regional — the highest seed in school history. The Huskies (26-8) will be the ninth seed and the designated visiting team in the first-round NCAA Tournament game. Washington and USU meet up in San Diego, California, in the 2006 NCAA Tournament. The Huskies won the meeting, 75-61.
The Aggie team, coaches, USU administrators and their families gathered at the West Stadium Center at Maverik Stadium to watch the Selection Show. After the East and South Regions were announced, the Midwest Region was up and had USU listed.
“It's an incredible feeling,” said Aggie guard Sam Merrill, who was the Mountain West Player of the Year and conference tournament MVP. “I'm still not sure it sunk in. To be able to finally get our name called makes me even more grateful that we won yesterday (Saturday). Going through those first couple regions, I was shaking. I wanted to know where we were going. So, I could only imagine what it would have been like to have lost yesterday. The eighth seed is the highest seed Utah State's ever gotten. We're really excited to go to Columbus and play a really good Washington team and try to make the most of this opportunity. We're very excited and humbled to be able to represent Utah State University.”
“It’s been an exciting week,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “What a great season and a historic season, quite frankly, in every way, shape and form. ... It’s been a historic run and a magical season. Now to earn the highest seed in the history of Utah State men’s basketball as an eight seed just speaks volumes to the character of our team and our program.”
Washington won the Pac-12 regular season title after posting a 15-3 league mark. The Huskies, who received 11 votes in last week’s Coaches Poll to rank tied for 31st in the nation, lost to Oregon 68-48 in the Pac-12 Tournament Championship game. Washington is coached by Mike Hopkins, who is in his second year at the helm and has an overall record of 47-21.
This will be the 21st NCAA Tournament appearance for USU. The last time the Aggies went dancing was in 2011, and their last victory came in 2001. This group has plans to end that long drought and will be the favorite, according to seeding.
“Yeah, it's been 18 years; It was Ohio State that they beat,” said Merrill, a life-long Aggie fan before coming to play at USU. “I was probably four or five. I do remember all the losses throughout the next few years, and those were really good Utah State teams that for some reason or another couldn't find a way to get over that hump. We're hoping to be that team that can do that and make some noise for our program.”
Some of the national experts are already predicting USU will beat Washington. If that happens, the Aggies would play the winner of top-seeded North Carolina and Iona on Sunday.
Entering the NCAA Tournament, USU has a NET Ranking of 29, a non-conference strength of schedule of 20, an overall strength of schedule of 96, 14 wins away from home with a 9-4 road record and a 5-1 mark on neutral courts, a 3-2 record against Quad 1 opponents, a 2-3 record against Quad 2 opponents, a 9-1 record against Quad 3 opponents and a 13-0 record against Quad 4 opponents. The Aggies did not lose back-to-back games during the entire season.
During the 2018-19 campaign, USU and Duke are the only two teams in the nation with a top 30 NET ranking, a top 20 non-conference strength of schedule and 14 wins away from home.
So, one could argue the Aggies have already made some noise. However, they are still hungry.
“It's incredible,” Merrill said. “I would have never thought we would be at this point with how my first couple years went. How we've grown as a team and how each player individually has grown, it's been an incredible ride and I can't ask for anything better. Go win a couple games here. We're, obviously, very excited to have helped bring Utah State basketball where it needs to be.”
The coach believes his team is already calmed down from the Selection Show and ready to go to work in preparation for the Huskies on Friday.
“They're excited to move on,” Smith said. “This team has not only a quest and a thirst to get better as a team and individually, they really have bought into the whole game planning thing. I think they look forward to that. They look forward to watching film on our opponent and going through the scouting report. I think they look forward to our walk-throughs and how we have to defend things.”
USU is coming off a 64-57 win against San Diego State in the Mountain West Tournament championship Saturday in Las Vegas. It was the Aggies first title since joining the MW six years ago. USU was the second seed in the tournament after sharing its first-ever MW regular-season title with Nevada.
The Aggies received votes in both polls, garnering 34 votes in last week’s Associated Press poll and 19 votes in the Coaches Poll to rank 29th in both polls. USU has received votes in both polls in each of the past two weeks. The last time an Aggie team was nationally ranked was during the 2010-11 season, when that team entered the NCAA Tournament ranked 19th in the AP poll and finished the year ranked 25th in the Coaches poll.
USU's 28 wins this season are tied for the 11th most in the country as Buffalo and Houston both have 31 wins, while Gonzaga, New Mexico State and UC Irvine all have 30 wins. Duke, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia and Wofford all have 29 wins, while Cincinnati, Liberty, Michigan, Michigan State, UNC Greensboro and USU all have 28 wins. USU’s 28 wins are tied with the 1999-2000 and 2000-01 teams for the third-most in school history and trailing the 2008-09 and 2010-11 teams that both won 30 games.
“The NCAA Tournament, we're so excited to represent Utah State the right way and the Mountain West Conference in a first-class fashion,” Smith said. “It's the best sporting event of the year, in my opinion, to be able to go into Columbus on Friday and do battle with Washington. I haven't really seen Washington play this year. ... They're the Pac-12 champions, so it should be a heck of a contest.”
USU also enters the NCAA Tournament riding a 10-game winning streak, which is tied with Iona for the eighth longest active winning streak in the nation behind Wofford (20), New Mexico State (19), UC Irvine (16), Buffalo (12), Colgate (11), Murray State (11) and Prairie View A&M (11). Overall, the Aggies have won 17 of its last 18 games.
“We’re all excited,” Merrill said. “We're very humbled. This is going to be a fun ride for us.”