LAS VEGAS — Before heading to the Silver State, the Aggies knew they would be playing a foe they had just seen.
When the bracket for the Mountain West Men’s Basketball Championship was revealed late Saturday night, Utah State had a date in the quarterfinals of the tournament with the winner of San Jose State and New Mexico. The Aggies played the Spartans in their second-to-last game of the regular season and the Lobos in the finale.
“We’re coming off a tough loss, obviously. It’s kind of ironic that we get the winner of the last two teams we just played,” USU head coach Craig Smith said on Tuesday before the team left for Sin City. “… We are excited to try and defend our title.”
The Aggies (23-8) didn’t find out until late Wednesday afternoon who they would be playing. That was several hours after the team practiced at the UNLV practice facility.
“We had a great practice,” Smith said. “There is a lot of adrenaline and enthusiasm for all of the teams here. Everybody is chasing an opportunity of a lifetime, and that is to play in March Madness.
“... We really have just focused on ourselves. We have been playing well the past five weeks, but had a setback last Saturday. We are always fine-tuning and have room to grow. I like what we accomplished today.”
New Mexico overcame a slow start to beat San Jose State, 79-66, and advance Wednesday. The Lobos (19-13) and Aggies will tangle on Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Thomas & Mack Center. The game will be televised on CBS Sports Net.
“Well, March Madness is upon us, earlier than normal, but we are sure excited to be a part of it,” Smith said. “It’s an exciting time and a great event in a fantastic venue.”
Last year the Aggies and Lobos also met in the quarterfinals. USU won, 91-83 to take its first step toward winning the conference tournament. But that was last year.
“We hope to get to the championship game, but it starts Thursday,” Aggie forward Sam Merrill said. “You can’t win the championship unless you win game one. Everyone talks about three games in three days, but our focus needs to be tomorrow night and it will be. … We can’t look ahead. We can’t get distracted with bubble talk or bracketology or anything like that.”
And the Aggies better not be looking ahead. New Mexico and USU met less than a week ago in Albuquerque. The Lobos edged the Aggies, 66-64. The loss snapped a six-game winning streak by USU.
“Adversity is what brings out the best in people, and we’ve shown that,” Merrill said. “We haven’t been perfect this year. We’ve had some bad losses, but we have been able to respond every time. We didn’t play great the other night, but that happens. We’ve been playing our best basketball. Hopefully, we can respond.”
“I feel we are prepared and have the right mindset going into this tournament,” Aggie center Neemias Queta said. “We have been playing well the last nine or 10 games. We are going to play through the adversity.”
USU is approaching Thursday’s game as a fresh start, as do most teams this time of year.
“We need to have a short memory and not get down on how our season ended,” Aggie forward Justin Bean said. “We need to go in with a chip on our shoulder, knowing we do have something to prove. We do want to let the league know and the teams we play that we are the defending Mountain West champions. Our goal has always been to win a Mountain West championship. That has not changed regardless of the ups and downs we have gone through.”
Being the defending champions will obviously paint a target on the Aggies, but no one wants their season to be over. Plus, New Mexico is well aware of who ended its season last year.
“I have a bitter taste (from last year),” said Lobo Vance Jackson after scoring 26 points and grabbing 12 rebounds Wednesday against SJSU. “I’m pretty sure Makuach (Maluach) has a bitter taste and some of our teammates from last year. … I also don’t want to lose. If we lose, our season is over.”
After dropping five in a row and 10 of 12 before last Saturday, the Lobos have now won two in a row. They overcame a 14-point second half deficit to beat the Aggies.
“Certainly, we need to cut down on our turnovers,” Smith said. “That was a big problem that night. We need to finish plays. And when I say finish, I mean finishing around the basket. In the first half, we had six or seven point-blank shots that you shoot a 100 times and probably make a 100 times. In the second half, we miss another three. You got to finish those plays. … We left a lot of plays out on the court.”
Missed bunnies and 17 turnovers did certainly make it hard on the Aggies last Saturday.
Queta nearly had an infamous triple-double at New Mexico. The Aggie big man had 18 points, 14 rebounds and eight turnovers in the loss. Merrill also had 18 points as just two USU players reached double figures.
The Lobos were led by Jackson with 17 in that game. Corey Manigault had 16, while Maluach and Zane Martin had 10 each. On Wednesday, Maluach netted 22 points, and Maigault added 18.
For the season, JaQuan Lyle has led the Lobos with 15.0 points a game. Manigault (12.1), Jackson (12.6) and Martin (10.5) have averaged double figures.
Merrill leads the Aggies with 18.8 points and 4.0 assists and outing. Queta (12.7) and Bean (12.3) join Merrill in double figures. Bean is USU’s top rebounder with 10.3 a game.
Having won it all last year, the Aggies are experienced and know what it takes to win it all.
“Last year no one had an idea of how to do it,” Queta said. “Last year was more of let’s see where we can go, let’s see what happens next. This year the mentality is to win it all.”
“We are excited for an opportunity,” Merrill said. “This is what you work for all summer. This is what college basketball is all about. We love the conference tournament. We’ve had a good couple of days prep for whoever we play tomorrow. We’ll be ready to go.”
The Aggie coach pointed out the long season has led up to this moment. If you win, you advance.
“Most teams if you lose, you are done,” Smith said. “Most of these guys have grown up with That One Shining Moment. It’s a whole new start, everyone plays their hardest. It’s the beauty of the conference tournament leading into the Big Dance.
“... There are a lot of teams that can really come out of this thing and I didn’t feel like that last year, where there were three, maybe four teams that could win it. This year, almost everybody could win it and San Diego State is playing terrific. It’s a wide-open tournament and let the best team win.”