SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Thinking the ninth time would be the charm, I was wrong again.
For the ninth time I watched a hopeful Utah State men’s basketball team lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Perhaps I’m bad luck.
Three different head coaches have guided the Aggies to the Big Dance since I took over the beat. None have been able to get to the weekend.
Only once were the Aggies the lower seed — 2019 in Columbus, Ohio, against Washington. That USU team was seeded a school-record eighth, so it played a ninth seed in Washington. The Huskies were too much for the Aggies, winning 78-61.
I’ve been able to witness some close ones. As an 11 seed in 2009, the Aggies gave Marquette all it could handle in Boise, Idaho. In the end, USU lost by the narrowest of margins, 58-57. That Aggie team could have made a run in my mind, but couldn’t get out of the first round.
Then there was the 2011 team. Somehow the Aggies were seeded 12th despite being in the Top 25. They had to play nationally ranked Kansas State. Neither team was happy about the first-round matchup. USU lost a hard fought game in Tucson, Arizona, 73-68. Once again, I felt that team was heavy on seniors and could have made some noise.
Then there was the year that didn’t happen. We will never know what the 2020 Aggie team could have done. With Sam Merrill and Neemias Queta, plus an up-and-coming Justin Bean, that USU team was primed to win a game in March, other than at the Mountain West Tournament. We will never know, however, as COVID-19 shut down the NCAA Tournament that year.
The rest of my experiences at the Big Dance have been double-digit losses like Thursday, However, this one really didn’t feel like it was a double-figure setback.
No. 23 Missouri didn’t have its first lead of 10 or more points until there were 3:55 minutes left in the game. USU got within eight with 2:48 to play. The Tigers didn’t led by double digits again until the final 1:39. The Aggies had enjoyed a lead in the game in the second half with less than 10 minutes to play. That has not happened a lot in the NCAA Tournament games I’ve been fortunate to cover.
But whatever the margin, a loss is a loss, right? Close losses leave one thinking and scrutinizing every play and going over the “what if” scenario. When you lose by more than 10 points, usually you don’t do that.
However, this most recent game does make one wonder a bit. What if USU had made just a few more 3-pointers, or taken a few less and went to the rim where success was had at times? What if the Tigers shot their normal percentage from three? What if the Aggies had just turned the ball over what they averaged for the season? How about a few calls on some big-time contact in the second half? USU did not attempt a free throw in the second half.
Yeah, a lot of “what ifs.” I normally don’t like playing that game, but just really felt like this team was going to break through and end the drought.
This Aggie team led the nation for most of the season in 3-point percentage, but certainly ended with a thud. In the last two games USU made 8 of 48 3-point attempts. In the MW tournament championship against San Diego State, the Aggies had no legs as they were playing their third game in about 40 hours, so that’s understandable.
Shooting 4 of 24 on Thursday against Missouri was a head scratcher. USU had some good looks and just missed. The Aggies also rushed some. It added up to a bad day from beyond the arc
Inside the 3-point line, USU was 24 of 35, just below 69 percent. Maybe they should have traded a few of those 3-point attempts for twos. Sure, it’s easy for me to say now in hindsight. This Aggie team did finish with the second-most 3-pointers made in a season in school history with 315, just two off the record of 317 made during the 2017-18 season.
The last win at the Big Dance for USU came back in 2001, when the Aggies beat fifth-seeded Ohio State in overtime, 77-68. Thanks Tony Brown and the rest of that team for ending a drought that was even longer — 31 years.
It’s really all about matchups. I know how people from big conferences and many in the national media love to rag on the Mountain West. Sure, teams from the MW need to win some games to get credit, but most times they are lower seeds and not expected to win. The league was certainly exciting this season and should be again next year. In fact, it has been pretty competitive at the top for a while, but teams normally near the bottom have improved vastly.
While it was not the ending any Aggie fan, player, coach or administrator wanted, USU did have an incredible season. Picked to finish eighth, the Aggies went out and won their first nine games and were among the last undefeated teams in the country. When the conference season rolled around, USU was competitive in all but one game and finished in a tie for second. The Aggies reached the MW tournament championship and got an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament for just the fourth time in school history.
Yes, it’s hard to think about all that after losing a game many thought USU would win. But in reality, the second year under head coach Ryan Odom was pretty successful with 26 wins and nine losses.
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