Utah State is balling and is the lone undefeated basketball team in the Beehive State right now. They are currently ranked #15 in the AP Top 25 and have a chance to move up in the coming week after an impressive showing in the Jamaica Classic.
The Aggies almost had a stinker of a game that would have been a mark on their permanent record. As bad as the first half was it makes the story even more amazing in what was perhaps one of the biggest comebacks ever in program history. Utah State was down by 19 early in the second half and came back to beat an LSU team that just last week was ranked in the Top 25.
The Aggies followed up with another win through adversity over a small but quicker North Texas Mean Green Team. It was a closely contested game for most of the way but the Aggies clamped down to win despite Abel Porter fouling out, Sam Merrill tweaking his ankle, and an overall poor shooting night by the team’s usual lofty standards. Fan favorite Justin Bean was named the tournament MVP and the Aggies won their first ever Jamaica Classic tournament trophy as they were the only team of 8 to go undefeated over the weekend.
How is Utah State playing so well? There are a couple of reasons:
1. Senior Laden team: You don’t see too many rookie mistakes from the Aggies because there just aren’t that many rookies.
The Aggies average just 12.3 turnovers per game which is tied for 91st in the country. That may not seem good until you factor there are over 300 Division 1 teams. Being in the top third isn’t shabby at all.
The only two teams to give the Aggies any trouble is LSU and Montana State and North Texas. Still, the Aggies remain unbeaten. They sometimes struggle when they miss shots but they don’t do that often either. They currently average the 24th most points in the country at 82.6 points per game.
2. Eye of the Tiger: LSU got the Aggies pretty good on the gridiron. We knew the Aggies would have a tough schedule and a rebuilding year but nobody saw the rebuild being a total reclamation project.
However, Utah State made a valiant comeback to quell any hopes of the “just like football” chant for LSU Tigers fans who made the trip to Jamaica. They also could arguably make the same chant to North Texas who their football team beat in the New Mexico Bowl last year but that was a little too long ago to affect the Mean Green fans.
3. The Hustle plays: The Aggies play tough and smart. It doesn’t always show up in the box score but going for loose balls, jump balls and just the basketball in general.
USU did out-rebound a more athletic team from a bigger conference due to their grit. They got 9 offensive boards to the Tiger’s 7 and 25 to their 24 on the defensive end.
The Aggies were great at staying in between their man and the basket without fouling as they had just 12 fouls to the Tiger’s 18.
Bottom Line: This is resume building time. If the Aggies can make it through December with only one or two losses out of conference then they will be in good shape to take control of the Mountain West and earn at least an at-large bid. The Aggies haven’t won an NCAA tournament game since they beat The Ohio State University in a classic 5 vs 12 upset.
If the Aggies win like this then they might not have to be the underdog. Currently they are around a 5 or 6 seed in the eyes of most bracketologists. If they keep winning then you could see them move up even more.
Toughest remaining opponents:
BYU (Yoeli Childs returns)
San Diego State (runner up to Utah State last year in the Mountain West Tournament)
Ceiling: Elite 8
To do this the Aggies would have to just be tremendous. They’d have to have only one loss and enter the tournament as a 2 seed. They could then run the table against a 15, 7 or 10 and a 3 or 6. Depending on the matchups an elite 8 would be possible only in this scenario.
Basement: NIT champions
The Aggies might have an identity crisis in this case but it’s possible they could get shut out if they somehow lose the Mountain West Tournament. Nevada got in as an at large last year but that isn’t always a guarantee in a mid-major. The Aggies were the first ever Top 25 team to miss the NCAA tournament when they lost in the Big West tournament about 15 years ago. The Mountain West is definitely a step up but the Aggies better remember that running the table in the conference tournament is what got them a secure bid last year. If they somehow got shut out of the tournament you better bet they’d be an NIT favorite to win it all in Madison Square Garden.
Most Likely: Round of 32
It’s tough to be a Final Four, let alone a Sweet 16 team overnight especially as a mid-major. The Aggies will be prime to get that first round exit monkey off their back though. It won’t be totally easy though. Even a one seed isn’t safe as we saw with UMBC over Virginia.
I predict the Aggies get a 5 seed in the tournament with just 4 losses in the season. They will barely avoid a 5 vs 12 upset to a tough one-bid league team like Belmont and then lose to a 4 seed in the second round. It will most likely be a 4th place ACC team like Louisville. Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz might find a way to be in attendance and will cheer for both his former college and the Aggies.