The Aggies were the first team to punch their ticket to the Big Dance and they really needed this win. They were on the bubble and with a loss they might have been left out of the tournament. They would have had only a 25% chance according to TeamRankings. They now have a 100% chance to make the tournament as they secured an automatic bid with their second straight Mountain West Championship.
This season hasn’t been necessarily the smoothest sailing for the Aggies but they certainly peaked at the right time and let the chips fall into place. It’s time to see how the Aggies ended up where they are today.
1. Aggies blaze to 6-0 start: The Aggies survived a scare in their home opener against Montana State. A guy named Harald Frey went off for 34 points but the Aggies still held on to win by 10. They then beat four less stellar teams by double figures. They were untested but still looking like the team that was favored to win the Mountain West.
The season began to reach a fever pitch when the Aggies went down to the Jamaica Classic and came back from a 20 point deficit to beat LSU.
2: The WCC Strikes back: The Aggies then ran into Saint Mary’s and BYU to record their only two non-conference losses of the season. Saint Mary’s avenged their loss the previous year to the Aggies and took advantage of the absence of Neemias Queta who was recovering from an offseason injury he suffered when playing for the U20 Portugal team. BYU edged Utah State in a classic in-state rivalry by 4 points at the Beehive Classic.
The Aggies recorded one more quality win over Florida in the Orange Bowl Classic. At this point they have climbed high in the Top 25 and are on the cusp of reaching it again.
3. Craig Smith suffers first losing streak in tenure: In 2020 it was a “New Year New Me” for the Aggies but not in a good way. Utah State lost to UNLV by 17 points on New Year’s Day. They then lost at home to an undefeated San Diego State by 9 points in front of a sellout crowd. The nightmare wasn’t over. They suffered another bad quad 3 loss by double digits to Air Force. Before this game Coach Smith had never lost consecutive games. It was the first major test for a team with high promise.
After this stretch the Aggies protected their home court but continued to struggle on the road. They blew an 18 point lead to Boise with 4 minutes to go.
4. The Mountain West Tournament run: At this point Sam Merrill has passed every Aggie in career scoring except Greg Grant and Jaycee Carroll. The Aggies have hovered around the bubble for the second half of the season after wins over decent but not great teams.
The quarterfinal matchup against New Mexico was not easy. The Aggies had clinched the two seed but despite being a seven seed the Lobos crowd came to cheer loud. The Lobos made a run in the second half and were up by 11 with 9:38 to go.
The Aggies then unleashed a weapon known as Mountain West Merrill. Sam Merrill made 11 points and helped the Aggies rally back to win 75 to 70. It’s impressive that Sam stayed in the game considering he had four fouls for nearly the entire second half. He avoided fouling out and helped his team live to play another day.
The second day the Aggies played a Cinderella 11 seed Wyoming team that upset 6 seed Colorado State and 3 seed Nevada. Wyoming made a lot of threes and didn’t back down from Utah State. Despite never leading during the game they tied the score with just under 5 minutes left in the game. This time the team did respond as a whole but were once again led by Sam Merrill in those final five minutes.
The MWC Championship Game was flooded by San Diego State fans. The Aztecs had only lost one close game all season to UNLV on the road. The Aggies struggled early in the first half as they were down 27 to 11. In what felt like a road environment, the Aztecs were hitting threes and looking like they were going to run Utah State out of the Thomas and Mack Center.
The Aggies responded with a 10-2 run to end the first half and pull the Aggies within single digits.
In the second half the game became very close. Both teams were missing shots. With just over 10 minutes to go it was once again the Money Merrill time in the clutch. Sam made 12 points in that final 10 minutes. This was like a dramatic movie especially the last minute. After a timeout, the announcer said, “74 seconds to go! Who will punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament?
The Aggies badly needed the ticket to dance as their regular season resume wasn’t nearly as impressive as the Aztecs. The Mountain West regular season MVP, Malachi Flynn, made a jumper with a minute to go to put the Aztecs up by 1.
Sam Merrill was fouled on the first play. The 90 percent free throw shooter clanked the first shot to the shock of Aggie nation. Was the end of Sam’s storied college career going to end in a tragedy?
Sam hardly ever misses two in a row and he didn’t this time either. He made the second to set the Aggies up for a much needed defensive stop.
Malachi Flynn missed a quick three point attempt that would have been the dagger for the Aggies. Sam Merrill held the ball and isolated his defender until the shot clock was almost out. He created as much space as he could and bombed a shot well behind the three point line. It swished with 2 seconds to go and the Aggie side went wild! The game wasn’t over as the Aztecs had time for one last desperation heave. Their half court shot was very close to going in but bricked off the back iron.
Like Deja Vu, Utah State fans swarmed the court as the Aggies cut down the nets and once again punched their ticked to dance at the NCAA tournament. Players and coaches took turns cutting down parts of the net. Immediately afterwards Sam Merrill was put into the conversation for greatest Aggie ever. There have been a lot of great Aggies such as Jaycee Carroll and Wayne Estes but it is hard to remember a greater shot on a greater stage. This has been one of the greatest tournament runs by an Aggie player.
Bracketology Impact: Now that the Aggies have been guaranteed a spot in the NCAA tournament, where will the Aggies play and who will be their opponent? Well, they have likely graduated from their bubble status so we probably won’t see them in Dayton. That win over San Diego State has to move them up a little bit.
The Aggies are currently projected somewhere around a 10 or 11 seed according to most prognosticators. Let’s see what the current predictions are:
ESPN: 10 seed facing 7 seed West Virginia in St. Louis Missouri in the Midwest bracket
CBS Sports: 10 seed facing 7 seed Illinois in St. Louis Missouri in the Midwest bracket.
NBC Sports: 10 seed facing 7 seed Providence in Tampa Florida in the South bracket
My ideal projection: If the right teams lose this weekend, perhaps the Aggies could climb to a single digit seed. For now, I can safely put them as a 10 seed against an average team from a Power 5 conference. The Big 10 is projected to get the most teams in the tournament but there aren’t a lot of them projected to be a top seed. Look for someone like Michigan, Iowa or another of those teams in that 7 seed range to match up with the Aggies.
If the Aggies are going to get their first tournament win I would like their chances if they face a team that doesn’t rebound well. I don’t like the West Virginia matchup at all because their “Press Virginia” full-court press will force the Aggies into turnovers that they are sometimes prone to make under pressure. They also aren’t far from the Aggies in rebounds per game. They average 40.4 while Utah State averages the seventh best in the nation with 40.7 boards per game.
Illinois isn’t too far off either. Providence is a little further down the line. If the Aggies can earn a couple extra possessions vs a team like this then I would definitely take the Aggies here! With the way Sam Merrill and Queta are playing they have a puncher’s chance to beat anyone.
Realistically I think they get a matchup with a Big 10 team. The odds might not seem as good but if the Aggies upset a #5 seeded Ohio State team in their last tournament victory in 2001 then maybe they can pull off another one. Once we know the matchup for sure on Selection Sunday then we can analyze the chances the Aggies break their tournament drought. For now, this is my prediction:
The Utah State Aggies will be a 10 seed playing a 7 seed in St. Louis. That will be Iowa. It would be interesting to see how the Aggie center Neemias Queta would fare against one of the best centers in the nation in Luka Garza. For now, Aggie fans won’t be sweating on Selection Sunday since they have the auto-bid.