COLUMBUS, Ohio — It certainly was not the kind of finish the Aggies were planning for the 2018-19 men’s basketball season.
Utah State had one of its best runs come to an end in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Friday evening at Nationwide Arena. Washington was too much for the Aggies, ending their season with a 78-61 win.
“We’re just going to keep competing and doing our best to get back to the top again, get back to this tournament and hopefully a better outcome next time,” USU guard Brock Miller said. “This experience will definitely benefit us.”
Several of Miller’s teammates agreed.
“Our goals next year will be to do what we did this year, win the league, win the Mountain West Tournament and then get here again and win,” Aggie guard Sam Merrill said.
“I think there is a healthy balance of being proud of what we accomplished and also sitting here after a loss,” USU guard Abel Porter said. “When you find that balance and are never satisfied with the outcome, I think we’re going to have a great roster and be ready for next year.”
Aggie head coach Craig Smith choked up a bit reflecting on this team. It was his first year at the helm. He couldn’t say enough about the players coming together and having a great season. USU went 28-7, with the 28 wins tying for the third most in a season, ever.
“I’ve coached for 23 years on really, really good teams,” Smith said. “I had a team that played in a national championship game. I loved coaching those guys. I’ve been a part of a lot of rebuilding, where you are doing some things for the first time. I have never seen a team come together like this team has.
“... How far this team has come, I wish every coach could coach a team like this. It’s just an amazing, amazing group to be around. … This group, I mean, it’s a band of brothers. They will be forever connected, just their selflessness, the way they play, there’s no ego. There’s no, ‘I need to get mine.’ There’s just none of that.”
Despite being picked so low in preseason polls, the Aggies believed they could get to the Big Dance and win there. That was hard for some media members to believe in Columbus.
Smith tried to explain and apologized to media members for using some of his often-used phrases.
“It’s always impossible until you make it possible,” Smith said. “There’s a quote I remember: It’s a funny thing about life, if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.’ So, we had high expectations from day one.”
Smith shared that there was a group text started among the team. Merrill was the who that started it and titled it “Mountain West champs.” That was done before the season even began. The coach was thankful for how the athletes bought in from the start.
“I’ve always believed as a person, as a coach, as a father, in anything you do in life, why would you ever put limitations on yourself?”
Several Aggies will begin next season in good position to keep climbing up some career record lists.
Merrill needs just seven 3-pointers to tie Reid Newey (237) for third place. Merrill also needs just four assists to tie Tai Wesley (356) for eighth on that career category.
Queta needs six blocked shots to tie Nate Harris (90) for fifth in blocks in a career.
“This whole season was really special,” Queta said after the game Friday. “It was hard, but we put in a lot of hard work. The sky is the limit for us. We are going to keep working hard and hopefully next year we will be back again.”
A bus load of USU students brought plenty of energy to Nationwide Arena. They were loud and proud throughout the game and got plenty of time on the screen above the playing surface.
The charter bus ride took more than 32 hours from Logan to Columbus. They were hoping for a longer stay in the Buckeye State, but were preparing themselves for the return trip, which was to start on Saturday.
The Aggie crowd was good sized, considering the distance from Cache Valley. There were posters among the USU faithful that had a picture of a gas can and the slogan: “Enough gas in the can to finish strong.”
Sadly for the fans, that wasn’t the case Friday.
ANOTHER HONOR FOR SMITH
Smith was named the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) District 17 Coach of the Year on Friday. Smith is one of 25 coaches across the nation included on the list.
Smith led the Aggies to both the regular season and Mountain West Tournament championship. USU’s 28 wins are the third most in school history and the most by a first-year head coach in USU history. Smith also recorded the most wins by any first-year head coach in the nation this season.
In the Mountain West, Smith led the Aggies to a 15-3 mark, which tied for the third-most league victories in school history and the most for USU since joining the conference in 2013-14.
The Aggies are currently ranked No. 25 in the nation in both The Associated Press and USA Today Coaches poll, marking the first time they have been ranked since the 2010-11 season.
Nationwide Arena is the home of the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets. It was first opened in 2000 and a concert was the first event held there. It is located in the Arena District of Columbus. The arena can seat 18,500 for hockey, 19,500 for basketball and 20,000 for a concert.