by Daniel Olsen
After punching an auto-bid to the Big Dance last year only to have the tournament cancelled due to the pandemic, the Utah State Aggies basketball team secured their first at-large bid in team history. They finished second in the Mountain West in the regular season and conference tournament. Despite some debate about whether or not they were in, they received one of the last first round byes as an 11 seed. That means they don’t have to win a play-in game today to get to the Round of 64. It’s time to predict just how far their season will go.
Scouting the Texas Tech Red Raiders
This school has seen some familiar Aggie faces ever since Matt Wells took the football job following the stellar 11-2 season in 2018. Many other people involved with the Aggies followed. While Wells did acknowledge his love for the Aggies he played and coached for, he admitted he will be cheering for Texas Tech. They are, after all, the institution that writes his paycheck.
From a basketball standpoint, the Red Raiders are more talented on the court than the gridiron. They finished as the runner-up to Virginia in 2019. They are an outstanding defensive team as they force turnovers 20.8 percent of the time. That is one of the best marks in the nation in this statistic. In comparison, Utah State is three percent lower at 17.8. The good news is Utah State leads in almost all other defensive stats. They hold their opponent to less points-per-possession (.880), effective field goal percentage (45.6), offensive rebound percentage (19.3), and free throws per field goal attempt (.261).
Best players on the court
This team looks different with a new leader in Georgetown transfer Mac McClung. Known for his high flying dunks, McClung has also hit some clutch shots. One of the best was a game winner over in-state rival Texas back in January. He averages 15.3 points per game to lead the Red Raiders. Utah State will need to have a sound defensive strategy to hold McClung below that average if they hope to win the game.
On the USU side, honorable mention All-American Neemias Queta is by far the best player on the court. Because of his defense, he is more valuable to the team than McClung is for his. He averages a double-double with 15.1 points and 10 boards per contest. He is also one of the best rim protectorsin the NCAA with an average of 3.2 blocks per game. The way he spikes shots into oblivion would make volleyball coaches salivate. This team lives or dies with Queta. He is good at staying out of foul trouble. This bodes well for the Aggies if Queta can stay in the game. He had 11 points and 9 rebounds in the first round loss to Washington in 2019. If he can get at least 20 points and 10 boards, that would boost the chances for the Aggies to upset.
Prediction: USU 60 Texas Tech 61
It depends on if you’re a stats person or eye test person. By the eye test, the Red Raiders check all the boxes. The six seed wins 62 percent of the time in tournament history. They have a tougher strength of schedule in the Big 12. That is why they are forgiven for their slew of losses to end the year. They have also won on the road which is a key indicator of success.
The analytics will tell you that the Aggies are a sneaky underrated team and should be a good choice for an upset pick. As mentioned previously, defense favors the Aggies in a game between two stout defensive teams. On the offensive side, the Aggies can win if they have a good shooting performance and get offensive boards at their usual high level.
The state of Utah will get one tournament win this year. With BYU as a six seed, they have a better chance if they get UCLA. Utah State as the underdog has a tougher road. Last year’s team would have been a great Sweet 16 pick. USU has come close a view times but hasn’t quite achieved a first round victory since 20 years ago. That was a first round overtime upset over five seed Ohio State.
Utah State will barely lose but only if it is followed by a BYU win on Saturday. Michigan State could play spoiler. BYU is playing well enough that they as the favored seed still have the easier path.
Sweet 16 chances
If the Aggies upset the Red Raiders, they may earn a date with a familiar foe. Barring an upset by 14 seed Colgate, the Aggies would face Eric Musselman, former coach of the Nevada Wolfpack and current coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. Last year I would have picked the Aggies to the Sweet 16. Without Merrill, they aren’t the same on offense. If they play as a team and run with Queta, their ceiling seems like a first round win and taking a tough Arkansas team to the wire. Musselman, like Smith, was an excellent coach at Nevada and is already working his magic for Arkansas. Either way, the Aggies have a good chance to pull off the upset.
Featured image courtesy Morgan Engel/Clarkson Creative Photography