by Daniel Olsen
For the second straight year, the Utah State Aggies are the one team in the Beehive State that is sending players to the 2021 NBA Draft. Neemias Queta was selected 39th by the Sacramento Kings. What does this mean for the Aggies as far as their status in the NCAA is concerned? It’s time to look at three reasons why they are an elite program.
They send players to the NBA Draft
Last year, Sam Merrill was drafted with the 60th and final pick of the 2020 NBA Draft. While he may have been selected as the Mr. Irrelevant pick, there isn’t anything irrelevant about him. Now that the Milwaukee Bucks have won an NBA Championship, Merrill can add a title to his resume that also includes two Mountain West Tournament MVP Awards.
Utah State is one of just 15 colleges to have a player selected in the last two NBA Drafts. For fans that want to talk about football as well, the Aggies also had Jordan Love selected in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft. While the Utes dominated the 2020 NFL Draft and the Cougars dominated 2021, they didn’t do anything in the other drafts in that same time span.
The Cougars have had more recent team success with nine straight hoops victories over the Aggies. However, Utah State has won two of the last three games in football and should keep the rivalries competitive in both football and hoops if they continue to produce this level of individual talent.
They win at a high level
Over the last three years, the Utah State Aggies have qualified for the NCAA Tournament every time. They have won 74 games in that span. They have won the Mountain West Tournament twice and received an at-large bid in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
USU won over 75 percent of their games under Smith. They finished in the Top 25 at the end of the 2018-2019 season. The magic of the Dee Glenn Smith Spectrum returned after a brief hiatus following the dominance of the Stew Morrill era. Under Craig Smith, the Aggies only lost four basketball games at home. That is a winning clip of over 90 percent of their games in that span.
In contrast, the University of Utah has barely eclipsed the .500 mark the over the last three seasons. BYU is more competitive especially under Mark Pope in the last two seasons, but even they haven’t matched this track record over the last three seasons. With Craig Smith headed to Utah, there could soon be three elite basketball programs in the state vying for supremacy.
They pick elite coaches
Craig Smith was a home run hire and overlooked by many programs after coming out of a small town program in South Dakota. He completely turned the program around. While it was tough to see him go, the guy coming in arguably has a better track record.
New Aggie coach Ryan Odom has one more win in the NCAA Tournament than Smith (zero so far). He also did it with the odds stacked against him. Prior to 2018, no 16 seed had ever beaten a one seed in the NCAA Tournament. That all changed when the UMBC Retrievers came to face their Goliath in the top overall seed Virginia Cavaliers.
Under Odom, the Retrievers won 78-58 in arguably one of the biggest upsets in sports history. This is right up there with then FCS powerhouse Appalachian State over ranked Michigan in college football. Virginia, a defensive juggernaut, could not stop the hot three-point shooting of UMBC on that night.
Prediction: Aggies continue team success
It might be hard to see the Aggies send a player to the NBA Draft every year. Before 2020, an Aggie hadn’t been drafted in decades. This year, USU has a solid roster of mostly G-League or overseas caliber guys that can do some damage as a team in the Mountain West and possibly the NCAA tournament. If a player did get drafted again in 202, then that means the Aggies are who quickly turning into a powerhouse team not only in the conference, but the entire West Coast.
The odds are much better for an NFL player to get drafted out of USU soon with 259 players selected every year. The Aggies were the only Mountain West team to have a player selected in the NBA Draft this year. If they continue to work hard, they will send another Aggie to the NBA at some point soon. For now, it’s up to Queta and Merrill to continue to build the reputation of the school with their performance at the next level. So far, Merrill hasn’t done a bad job after winning an NBA championship in his rookie year.