LOGAN, Utah – Utah State men’s basketball will be making its 21st NCAA Tournament appearance all-time, including its ninth in the last 20 years, when the eighth-seeded Aggies face ninth-seeded Washington in the first round of the Midwest Regional on Friday, March 22, at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio at 4:45 p.m. (MT). The game will be televised nationally on TNT.
Utah State (28-6 overall, 15-3 Mountain West) is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011 and has not won a game in the NCAA Tournament since 2001, when the 12th-seeded Aggies recorded a 77-68 overtime win against fifth-seeded Ohio State in the first round. Since that contest, USU has lost seven-straight NCAA Tournament games.
Utah State has played in the NCAA Tournament 12 previous times since seedings started in 1980 and this is its highest-ever seeding. Overall, USU has been listed as a 10th-seed twice (1983, 1988), an 11th-seed twice (1980, 2009), a 12th-seed six times (1998, 2000, 2001, 2006, 2010, 2011), a 14th-seed once (2005) and a 15th-seed once (2003).
This is the second time that Utah State and Washington will be playing one another in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, also doing so in 2006 when the fifth-seeded Huskies posted a 75-61 win in San Diego, Calif., in the Washington, D.C. Region.
Utah State is fresh off its 64-57 win against San Diego State in the Mountain West Tournament championship game Saturday afternoon, the Aggies’ first MW Tournament title in its six years in the league. The Aggies began the tournament with a 91-83 win against New Mexico and then posted an 85-60 win against Fresno State before its victory against SDSU. USU was the second seed in the tournament after sharing its first-ever MW regular-season title with Nevada. All-time, Utah State has now won or shared 17 regular season league titles and claimed nine conference tournament championships.
Utah State is currently receiving votes in both polls as it garnered 34 votes in last week’s Associated Press poll and 19 votes in the Coaches Poll to rank 29th in both polls. USU has received votes in both polls in each of the past two weeks. The last time an Aggie team was nationally ranked was during the 2010-11 season, when that team entered the NCAA Tournament ranked 19th in the AP poll and finished the year ranked 25th in the Coaches poll.
Utah State’s 28 wins this season are tied for the 11th-most in the country as Buffalo and Houston both have 31 wins, while Gonzaga, New Mexico State and UC Irvine all have 30 wins. Duke, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia and Wofford all have 29 wins, while Cincinnati, Liberty, Michigan, Michigan State, UNC Greensboro and Utah State all have 28 wins. Furthermore, USU’s 28 wins are tied with the 1999-2000 and 2000-01 teams for the third-most in school history and trailing the 2008-09 and 2010-11 teams that both won 30 games.
Entering the NCAA Tournament, Utah State has a NET Ranking of 29, a non-conference strength of schedule of 20, an overall strength of schedule of 96, 14 wins away from home with a 9-4 road record and a 5-1 mark on neutral courts, a 3-2 record against Quad 1 opponents, a 2-3 record against Quad 2 opponents, a 9-1 record against Quad 3 opponents, and a 13-0 record against Quad 4 opponents. Furthermore, USU did not lose back-to-back games one time during the entire season.
This season, Utah State and Duke are the only two teams in the nation with a top 30 NET ranking, a top 20 non-conference strength of schedule and 14 wins away from home.
Utah State also enters the NCAA Tournament riding a 10-game winning streak, which is tied with Iona for the eighth-longest active winning streak in the nation behind Wofford (20), New Mexico State (19), UC Irvine (16), Buffalo (12), Colgate (11), Murray State (11) and Prairie View A&M (11). Overall, USU has won 17 of its last 18 games.
Washington is 26-8 on the season and won the Pac-12 regular season title after posting a 15-3 league mark. The Huskies, who received 11 votes in last week’s Coaches Poll to rank tied for 31st in the nation, lost to Oregon 68-48 in the Pac-12 Tournament Championship game. Washington is led by sophomore guard Jaylen Nowell, who is averaging 16.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, while senior guard David Crisp is averaging 12.7 points and senior forward Noah Dickerson is averaging 12.4 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Washington is coached by Mike Hopkins, who is in his second year at the helm of the Huskies and has an overall 47-21 record. Nowell and senior guard Matisse Thybulle were both named to the Pac-12 first-team, while Dickerson earned honorable mention honors.
Utah State has two players averaging in double-figures in junior guard Sam Merrill, the Mountain West Player of the Year, and freshman center Neemias Queta (Nuh-me-ish Kay-tah), the MW Defensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year. Merrill is averaging 21.2 points, 4.2 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.1 steals in 35.3 minutes per game, while shooting 46.5 percent (226-of-486) overall, 37.8 percent (84-of-222) from 3-point range and 90.7 (185-of-204) from the free throw line. Queta is averaging 11.9 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.4 blocks and 2.3 assists per game, while shooting 62.7 percent (163-of-260) overall, 40.0 percent (2-of-5) from 3-point range and 56.0 percent (75-of-134) at the free throw line.
Despite having just two players average double-digit points, Utah State does have six players that average nearly eight points per game, while six players grab on average four rebounds per outing.
Merrill was also named the Mountain West Tournament Championship Most Valuable Player as he averaged 23.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.0 steals per game, while shooting 47.5 percent (19-of-40) overall, including 27.3 percent (6-of-22) from 3-point range and 92.6 percent (25-of-27) at the free throw line. Merrill had 23 points and nine assists against New Mexico in the quarterfinals, to go along with 22 points, five rebounds and five assists against Fresno State in the semifinals, and 24 points and six rebounds against San Diego State in the championship game.
Queta was also named to the MW All-Tournament team as he averaged 14.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and 2.3 assists per game, while shooting 53.8 percent (14-of-26) from the field and 68.2 percent (15-of-22) at the free throw line. Queta had 16 points, six blocks, six rebounds and two assists against New Mexico in the quarterfinals, to go along with 10 points, 13 rebounds and four assists against Fresno State in the semifinals, and 17 points, eight rebounds and two blocks against San Diego State in the championship game.
Merrill was also named a third-team All-American by Stadium TV, while Merrill and Queta were two of 10 players named to the United States Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) All-District VIII team.
Utah State head coach Craig Smith, who is in his first year at the helm of the USU program, was named the Mountain West Coach of the Year and the USBWA District VIII Coach of the Year, along with being named a finalist for the Jim Phelan Coach of the Year. Smith was also named the Summit League Coach of the Year and the National Association of Basketball Coach (NABC) District 12 Coach of the Year following the 2016-17 season at South Dakota. He was also named the NAIA II National Coach of the Year in 2007 after leading Mayville (N.D.) State to the national championship game and earned Dakota Athletic Conference (DAC) Coach of the Year honors in both 2006 and 2007 at Mayville State.
The winner of the Utah State-Washington game will play the winner of top-seeded North Carolina and 16th-seeded Iona on Sunday, March 24.
AUDIO: USU Head Coach Craig Smith following the NCAA announcement
AUDIO: USU Guard Sam Merrill following the NCAA announcement