COLUMBUS, Ohio — It’s time for the Aggies and Huskies to dance.
No. 25 Utah State takes on Pac-12 regular-season champion Washington in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Friday evening at Nationwide Arena. The eighth-seeded and Mountain West champions Aggies (28-6) and ninth-seeded Huskies (26-8) will tip off at 4:50 p.m. MT, and the game will be televised on TNT.
Both teams went through the day-before hype. They met with the media in a formal press conference and then practiced for 40 minutes in front of fans and media.
“We’ve grown and grown through the season, but this is obviously, hopefully, not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some of us, but it’s something you have to enjoy,” USU guard Sam Merrill said. “I think our coaching staff and us as team have done a good job this week of not trying to worry about the outside stuff as far as the media and all the excitement around it, but trying to focus on Washington and our game coming up, and our scouting reports and prep. Practices have been the same as they’ve been all year.
“As far as mentally, I don’t assume; I don’t anticipate that we’ll come out really nervous or jittery. Fortunately, we got to play in our championship game on Saturday in the Mountain West Tournament, and that felt like a big game too. We did a pretty good job there, so hopefully we’ll do a good job tomorrow as well.”
Both the Aggies and Huskies have not played in the NCAA Tournament since 2011, so both teams will be dealing with being on a big stage with no experience. But like Merrill pointed out, the Aggies come in with some momentum. They have won 10 in a row and 17 of their last 18.
Conversely, the Huskies have dropped two of their last four contests, including a 20-point loss in the Pac-12 Tournament championship game to Oregon.
“It’s always the next game,” Washington forward Matisse Thybulle said. “Win or lose, you can’t dwell on it. For us, we moved on the second we got off the bus, and we’re excited to be here and have this opportunity to play in March Madness.”
Growing up a USU fan, Merrill has said several times this week he remembers watching the Aggies in 2011. Ranked at the time, USU had to play another ranked team in Kansas State and lost, 73-68.
Do any of the Huskies remember when Washington played in 2011?
“I do not remember that, 2011,” Husky guard Jaylen Nowell said. “I was probably 10 years old. Probably somewhere in my backyard, shooting. I don’t know what I was doing. Do you remember?”
“No,” Thybulle said. “I think for me and I know for Jayleen as well, it’s really exciting to be able to bring U-Dub back to this stage, because I know that Husky basketball has been known as a great program. They went through a stretch were they didn’t get to play in March Madness. It’s been too long. We’re just really happy to be able to bring us back.”
Nowell and Thybulle have been a big part of the Husky resurgence. Nowell was the Pac-10 Player of the Year as he averaged a team-best 16.2 points a game, to go along with 5.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals an outing. Thybulle was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and an all-league first teamer as he averaged 9.3 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 3.4 steals and 2.3 blocks a game.
Thybulle has the attention of the Aggies. The 6-foot-5 senior has the wingspan of a 7-footer.
“He’s a great athlete,” Merrill said. “His arms, you can tell watching film, you can see how long and how athletic he is. He does a great job anticipating passing lanes and blocking shots from behind. … He’s going to make some plays. That’s what his tournament is about. The best players make plays.”
Aggie head coach Craig Smith has also taken notice of Thybulle, who holds the Pac-12 record for career steals, breaking the previous mark held by Gary Payton. Thybulle also set a new single-season record, breaking the old mark held by Jason Kidd.
“I’ve had to take a lot of Advil over the last four days, because he (Thybulle) is a headache,” Smith said. “... He’s almost like Deion Sanders in football. When Deion Sanders played, it was like he eliminated whatever side of the field. He (Thybulle) is so instinctive, so quick twitch, so long and his hands are just so fast.”
What’s even more impressive is the fact the Huskies play exclusively zone defense.
“For a guy to average over three steals a game with two blocked shots playing zone is incredible,” Smith said. “He does it while staying disciplined. He’s not just running all over the place gambling and out of position.”
Joining Nowell in double-digit scoring is guard David Crisp (12.5) and forward Noah Dickerson (12.2). Dickerson leads the Huskies in rebounding with 7.4 an outing.
Smith went on to list Newell, Dickerson and Crisp, who he recruited while at Nebraska. That trio and Thybulle have all broken the 1,000-point barrier during their careers at Washington.
Washington head coach Mike Hopkins has gone to the NCAA Tournament 18 times as an assistant coach. He also has two assistants on his staff who have been on national champion teams in Dave Rice (UNLV) and Cameron Dollar (UCLA).
“I think today and tomorrow are the greatest day in sports,” Hopkins said. “And to be part of that, it’s special.”
The Husky coach has stressed to his team to enjoy the moment, but come ready to play or it will be short-lived. He is aware of the Aggies as they sport the MW Player of the Year in Merrill and the Defensive Player of the Year in Neemias Queta.
“They’re a heck of a team,” Hopkins said. “Sam Merrill is one of the best players that nobody knows about around the country. We’re talking about a guy who has got double the assists of anybody on their team. You’re talking about a guy who averages over 20 points a game. … He’s got a great shoot, but not only that, if he’s not open, he shares it. There’s not too many players like that in the country.”
Merrill does lead the Aggies — like he has all season — with 21.2 points and 4.2 assists a game. Queta is averaging 11.9 points and a team-best 8.9 rebounds an outing, while blocking 2.4 shots a game.
“I remember hearing about him (Queta) in the middle of the year,” Hopkins said. “They were talking about this great center at Utah State. Where did he come from? … It’s going to be a heck of a challenge.”
Both Thybulle and Nowell are not overlooking the Aggies.
“They have a lot of guys who aren’t well known, but if you look at the numbers, they have some really, really talented guys,” Thybulle said. “I don’t think that a lot of people across the country know much about them. But I know they’ll start hearing about their names soon.”
USU is among the top 20 teams in the nation in 10 statistical categories, including sixth in rebound margin (+8.9), eighth in defensive rebounds per game (29.41), ninth in assists pg (17.2), ninth in field goal percentage defense (39.1), 17th in scoring margin (+12.3) and 19th in assist-to-turnover ratio (+1.37).