While I witnessed pretty much all of this season live, it’s still a little hard to believe.
Why is that? Why do I keep thinking about how some past Aggie men’s basketball teams have not been rewarded? Where did this 2018-19 season come from?
Any member of the Utah State team will explain it took hard work and believing. I agree, but it also took the whole group buying in. I’ve written this and told radio audiences of opposing teams during interviews that there is just something different about this team.
This group of Aggies has totally bought in to what first-year head coach Craig Smith is selling, and it has worked.
Now the question arises, how long will this season continue? You know what, I really won’t be surprised if it lasts beyond this weekend. Why not shock the whole country? It seems like their destiny.
“All season long, we wanted to win the Mountain West championship,” Smith said earlier this week. “I know talking to different groups, they’re looking at you like you’re half crazy. Like I said early on, it’s always impossible until you make it possible. These guys made history that way.”
Yes, they did. I’ve written it over and over this year. The Aggies were picked to finish ninth in the MW in preseason polls. How laughable is that now?
Smith has coached for 23 years and like any one in the business will admit, there are some good teams and some bad teams. I still remember legendary USU coach Stew Morrill telling me there were a few teams he had, that, well, he just flat out didn’t like. Obviously, there were some he really liked.
And Smith’s take on the 2018-19 campaign?
“This has been like a fairy tale,” he said. “This is the best team I’ve ever been around. Our guys know how to compartmentalize things, and they always know how to move on. It’s cliché to say ‘don’t get too high, don’t get too low.’ I firmly believe in celebrating success for a little bit of time, because as hard as you work, you better enjoy it a little bit. But then you have to move on.”
That’s how the whole season has gone, really. It’s easy to focus on the end with two wins against San Diego State and beating nationally ranked Nevada, which would end up giving USU a piece of the regular season title. But this has been the approach all season.
And they have been able to stay focused. MW Conference Player of the Year Sam Merrill was asked over and over last week in Las Vegas about the NCAA Tournament. He kept the company line and talked about winning the MW Tournament, which the Aggies did, and Merrill was the MVP.
“Our guys weren’t even thinking about that (NCAA Tournament),” Smith said. “It was all about ‘let’s win this tournament. Let’s validate what we did, leave no doubt to what we did in the regular season.’ We won that and that was cool. Our guys were pumped, they got the nets, they’ve earned all of that, but after this draw, our guys are like ‘let’s go get these guys.’ They’re enjoying it, but they’re already on to the next deal. That’s what winners do, and we’ve got a lot of winners in our program.”
The focus is now on the NCAA Tournament, and this group is not satisfied with just making the Big Dance. The Aggies would like to stick around for a bit.
“When you reflect back on the season, you play 34 games, we’re 28-6. To not lose back-to-back games over a 34-game span is just an absolutely incredible accomplishment,” Smith said. “That speaks so much to the character, the toughness — the physical toughness but more so mental toughness.”
That is certainly a strength of this team. Many times Smith has said his team may not pass the warm-up line eye test, but when the game begins, these Aggies are going to battle to the final whistle.
As I wrapped up an interview with walk-on Justin Bean Tuesday, he said something that has been on my mind as the Aggies prepare to try and make some national noise.
“This is something we’ve been fighting for, for a long time,” Bean said. “We don’t take this opportunity for granted. Coach Smith has told us not to be satisfied with where we are, not to be to happy or excited, don’t let your emotions get the best of you. It’s good to celebrate a championship in the Mountain West, but this (NCAA) is really what we fought for. We are a dangerous team and know we can make a run if we come together and play our game.”
I also liked how Smith recognized past Aggie players and coaches as he prepares to embark on his first NCAA Tournament as a head coach.
“There’s just so much pride here,” Smith said. “Utah State has been to 21 NCAA Tournaments. Stew Morrill has been unbelievable. It means so much to be able to restore what we want to do. It’s a new era, being in the Mountain West and getting back to what expectations are that way. This group of young men made history, and they’ll always have that bond.
“We want to really connect our team and the program with the greats. Whether that’s coach Morrill being at our Nevada game, Spencer Nelson, Jaycee Carroll and other former Aggie greats. Marvin Roberts spoke to our guys at one of our practices. You look up at the banner and his number is retired up there. It’s important to me as a head coach to connect our current players with our past and join them together.”
And Smith does have some experience at the Big Dance.
“Our fifth year at Colorado State we were an 11-seed and we played Murray State when they had Isaiah Cannon, who is a NBA player right now,” Smith said. “It was 23-23 at the half, then I think we lost by 20. That was a rough go. At Nebraska we were an 11-seed and played Baylor in San Antonio. I had about 14 minutes of head coaching experience in that game.”
I’m thinking Friday will be much more memorable for Smith and the Aggies.