As postseason banter intensifies, the Aggies are busy focusing on getting better and being ready to play their best basketball in March.
Of course they have to be aware of the chatter. What does Utah State have to do to reach the NCAA Tournament? Are the Aggies already in? And what about all the bubble talk?
After the latest win last Wednesday to increase their winning streak to five and eight of their last nine, Aggie head men’s basketball coach Craig Smith told a media gathering he is not paying attention. I believe him. If USU keeps winning, which is what the coach is focused on, getting to the Big Dance will take care of itself.
“You are going to hate this answer, but I haven’t paid any attention to any of that stuff,” Smith said. “That’s the honest truth. I know our staff knows and our players know. I purposely live in a bubble. Our body of work isn’t done. ... We can’t control any of that stuff. My job as the head coach is to make sure our coaches are doing the best that they can, I’ve got to be the best that I can be. That carries over to the team. At the end of the day if it’s good enough, it’s good enough and if it’s not, it’s not.”
Like Smith said, the athletes are a bit of a different story. In this age of non-stop social media and the bombardment by fans, it’s hard for them not to see and be curious.
“It’s hard not to (see all the banter), and it’s hard to keep it out of our minds,” Aggie forward Justin Bean said. “At the end of the day, like coach tells us, we have to be our best each day. We have to play Aggie basketball and be the toughest team.”
Toughness certainly does go a long way. USU guard Abel Porter was asked if the team could do anything to help it get the committee’s attention.
“We just need to win,” Porter said. “We try and play the right way, but I don’t think the committee cares about that. They care about your record, how many games you have won and who you have beat. All we can do is go out on the court and win games.”
Which is what the Aggies have been doing. Sure, there was a stretch back in January that everyone would like to forget. But most times it comes down to how you finish the season.
“This season has been different because of the three-game losing streak and then you add in the Boise loss and its four out of five,” USU guard Sam Merrill said. “That stretch was obviously difficult. We are playing much, much better, but we still feel like we are trying to earn some respect back because of that stretch. The mindset we have right now is we need to earn it on the court.”
And the only way to do that is keeping winning. I feel this team has a good shot at getting back to the tournament championship game. But they will need to keep playing the way they are right now and get contributions from everyone. That is what makes this team so dangerous.
The health of the team has been brought up, and it looks like the Aggies are getting back to close to 100 percent. The extra weight of high expectations and all the preseason hype had to have taken a toll as well.
“That extra pressure may have been there, but I don’t think it affected us,” Merrill said. “We did have a really good non-conference. We had that slide, which was a combination of a lot of things — health, maybe some complacency and catching teams at bad times. I know we felt some pressure, but we had our own expectations, which were just as high as everyone else’s. We’ve continued to work hard all year. That has not been affected.”
Many want to know what is so different now compared to the bad stretch. It’s pretty simple.
“A lot of it is our health,” Smith said. “It’s very easy to see. Sam (Merrill) is moving a lot better than he did after the North Texas game. It took him some time. Bean was the same thing. It’s easy for people to forget about (Neemias) Queta. It takes a long time to get back in the flow. I think health is a huge thing.
“Then, just getting synergy with Queta back and playing in a different fashion on both ends of the court. It takes a little while to get adjusted.”
It does look like the Aggies are hitting their stride. Can they beat No. 4 San Diego State?
“Our goal at the end of the day is to win a Mountain West Championship and play in the NCAA Tournament,” Bean said. “That has been the same from day one.”
“We know what we are playing for,” Porter said. “We are in a great position. Every game matters the same whether they are San Diego State and haven’t lost yet, or whether they are Wyoming and have one conference win.”
First up is the home finale against San Jose State, then a date at New Mexico to wrap up the regular season. The Aggies will then take it one game at a time in Las Vegas at the conference tournament, starting with the quarterfinals. I personally think they are poised to make a run back to the title game and will be playing in it in two weeks. They can beat the Aztecs, but it will take an incredible effort by the whole team.