Utah State in the MW tournament: history, luck, and an X-factor

Utah State's Abel Porter in the game against San Jose State in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum in Logan, Utah, on Jan. 30, 2019. Utah State won the game, their fifth consecutive win, with a final score of 103-73. (Megan Nielsen)

Utah State will be playing with house money in the Mountain West tournament this week, for a myriad of reasons.

First, as has been reminded time and again this year, the Aggies were picked to finish ninth in the MW preseason poll. Twenty-five wins and one regular season title later, and USU has surpassed every outside expectation several times over. A team that had fans fretting over players departed from last season has already swept four of five MW awards voted on by the media, and will almost certainly rake in several more honors once awards voted on by MW coaches are announced on Tuesday. By anyone’s measure, the 2018-19 Utah State men’s basketball season has been a resounding success. Any further celebration in the MW tournament will act as the cherry to the season’s sundae.

Second, the Aggies are quite comfortably in the field of 68 for the NCAA tournament next week. While the bubble surrounding USU has crumbled in recent weeks, the Aggies finished the season on a 14-1 stretch that featured marquee wins at Fresno State and at home versus Nevada. Even early-season wins versus St. Mary’s and UC-Irvine have ascended in impressiveness, as both wins count towards Utah State’s 3-2 record in Quadrant 1 games according to the NCAA selection committee. As a result, the Aggies are now featured in 87 of 87 projected brackets included in the Bracket Project, with an average seed of 9.94. Barring a major collapse in the MW tournament, plus a major surprise from the selection committee, USU’s season will extend beyond Las Vegas.

But after shattering every glass ceiling placed above them so far, it’d be foolish to discount them to do it again (I’ve personally learned that lesson several times over this season). Utah State set a program record last season by reaching the semifinals. This year, the Aggies certainly have their eyes set on resetting that record again, and thanks to a certain amount of luck, they’re positioned well to do so.

While tiebreakers awarded Nevada the number one overall seed and pushed USU into the two-seed, the Aggies may have drawn the better half of the bracket in terms of match-ups. Against the quintet of Fresno State, Air Force, New Mexico, Wyoming, and San Jose State, the Aggies have gone 9-1 this season, with an average margin of victory at 13 points per game. Through the semifinals of the tournament, USU is guaranteed to match up against teams from that grouping.

Contrast with USU’s experiences against the other half of the bracket which features the likes of Nevada, San Diego State, UNLV, Colorado State, and Boise State. Against that grouping, the Aggies have gone 6-2 this season, with an average margin of only 4.5 points per game. USU, however, is guaranteed to face only one of those teams.

Even with a somewhat lucky bracket, the Aggies will still need to play impeccable basketball to come away with the title and clinch an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Any possible title game would pose a serious threat to Utah State’s odds, and a likely semifinal match-up with Fresno State looms frighteningly large. Even a quarterfinal game versus the winner of New Mexico and Wyoming poses a danger USU cannot overlook.

Not surprisingly, the Aggies will look to Sam Merrill to lead the team just as he has throughout the season. The junior has paced USU along to their 25-6 record, garnering plenty of Player of the Year attention in the process. Averaging a statline of 21-4-4 per game on the year, it’s all deserved. But for Utah State to make a run in the MW tournament, there’s another player whom I’m expecting to make the difference.

On January 19th, head coach Craig Smith made a somewhat surprising move by inserting sophomore guard Abel Porter into the starting lineup. The move made near instant dividends when Porter sank a game-winning 3-pointer in the closing seconds to win at New Mexico. With the extra minutes, Porter’s overall numbers received a boost. In the 13 games since becoming the starter, Porter has averaged 7.6 points, 3.9 assists, and 3.8 rebounds per game while actually seeing an uptick in efficiency. Look deeper, though, and Porter’s impact has stretched far beyond his own stats.

While perhaps not spectacular in any one area, Porter’s combination of effort and awareness is vital to USU’s play. Shooting 45 percent and putting up an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3-to-1 since becoming the starter, the rest of the team has enjoyed a marked boost since Porter’s elevation in playing time. All four of Merrill, Neemias Queta, Diogo Brito, and Quinn Taylor have seen an increase in points per game with Porter starting. Since that January 19th lineup change, those four have registered the following per-game stat lines:

Merrill: 24 points, 4.3 assists, 3.9 rebounds

Queta: 13 points, 2.3 assists, 10 rebounds

Brito: 9.5 points, 2.8 assists, 4.6 rebounds

Taylor: 8.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists

Every single one of those averages is higher than it was before Porter’s becoming a starter. As a team, the Aggies have seen an uptick in both points and assists per game. January 19th may have been the launching point for this Utah State team.

Only three wins separate Utah State from their first conference title since winning the WAC in 2011, plus an automatic berth to the NCAA tournament. After proving every expectation vastly underwhelming, no one should discount the Aggies’ chances in Vegas. Led by the duo of Merrill, the junior stalwart, and Queta, the freshman phenom, Utah State is a handful for any MW foe. But it could be Abel Porter that fully unlocks USU’s potential in March.

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