Fans, coach think USU deserves slot on Dance Card
After all, the Aggies have already become the third school in the Big West Conference to go undefeated throughout regular season play (16-0, 25-5 overall).
In addition to that, Utah State holds the nation's longest winning streak at 16 games and is just one of three teams in the country to go undefeated in conference play this year so far (Cincinnati and Penn being the others).
And, the Aggies' 25 wins this season gives them the third most in the country, behind Tulsa (27) and Iowa State University (26), which is coached by former USU head coach Larry Eustachy.
But, if the Aggies can win three more games in a row at the Big West Tournament, in Reno, Nev., Thursday through Saturday, they will lock up their third conference title (second in three years), as well as an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Regardless of what happens in this year's tournament, Utah State has already had a remarkable season, one in which many people didn't imagine.
And many of those same people are now saying USU deserves to be in the Big Dance.
"What everybody wants to say to me is, Are you in?'said Aggie head coach Stew Morrill. "The question should be, 'Do you think you should be in?' The answer to that is, 'Yes.' I think we should be in. Anytime you win 16 games in a row in league and are undefeated over a two month span, you have proven you are the best team in the league."
But can the Aggies carry that over to three games in three days?
"Who knows?" Morrill said. "That's what we'll find out this week." Utah State holds the advantage over all the other teams playing in the tournament as it has played three games in three days, at the Maui Invitational, in Maui, Hawaii., Nov. 22-24.
"We played three days in a row already," Morrill said. "Nobody else has...Let's be positive about that and expect to play three days in a row, and approach it that way."
First things first, however, as USU will have to get by the University of the Pacific (6-10, 11-17) in the first round of the tournament Thursday night at 7 (MST) if it wants to keep playing.
The Tigers, whom the Aggies beat 64-55 at the Spectrum on Feb. 19, will prove to be a difficult matchup despite their record. "(The) Pacific game will be a tough game for us," Morrill said. "It was when we played them here. Every game we've played, with the exception of two, have been tough games for us.
"We're not a dominant basketball team. We have to do things well to win. That hasn't changed."
One of the things the Aggies will rely heavily on is their defense, which only allows 59.8 points per game in the Big West, good enough to be ranked No.1 in the conference. In all its games, USU has allowed just 61.1 ppg (14th in the country).
The Aggies also are holding their opponents to just 39.5 percent from the field (second in the league).
"If we don't defend (Pacific) as well as we have been defending all year long," Morrill said, "we won't have a chance to win."
In order to win, what players do the Aggies need to key on?
"They're kind of like us in that they've got balance," Morrill said.
Senior guard Clay McKnight is Pacific's leading score at 12.0 points per contest, followed by sophomore center Mike Preston at 9.3, junior forward Peter Heizer at 8.7 and sophomore forward Mike Hahn at 8.2 McKnight led UOP in Logan with 16 points on 5-of-9 shooting from the floor, 5-of-8 from beyond the arc.
"The guy can really put the ball up," Utah State sophomore forward Brennan Ray said of McKnight's scoring ability.
But when the Tigers are on the defensive end of the court, Morrill doesn't suspect they will do anything differently this time around. "They're going to throw all kind of junk defenses at us," he said. "I think we handled them well for seeing them the first time, last time we played them. I think our kids do have confidence that we'll handle them even better this time. That's what they're hearing from me because I expect to handle them better."
In the two teams' first meeting, the Aggies were able to shoot 52 percent from the field (13-of-25) in the first half, en route to opening up an 11-point halftime lead.
USU made one less basket than UOP did in the second half, but allowed the Tigers back into the game by shooting just 8-for-21 from the free-throw line (17-for-36 in the game), as well as letting them hit two more 3-pointers.
However, despite beating the Tigers in the first meeting, as well as having the nation's longest winning streak at 16 games (winners of 19 of their last 20 overall), the Aggies know anything can happen.
"Anybody can beat us on a given night," Morrill said. "You've heard me say that a million times. One thing I added to our kids last weekend, I said, You guys are tired of me telling you this, but anybody can beat you on a given night.' Then I added, But they haven't.'"
Morrill thinks the fact the Aggies have won 16 in a row should help his team, rather than hurt it.
"We should be able to relax and go play hard and have fun knowing that we at least secured a special season in many ways," he said.
This will be the 53rd meeting beating the two schools, with the Aggies leading the overall series, 35-17.
The last time the two teams met in the conference tournament was March
8, 1998, when Utah State defeated UOP in the championship game 78-63,
giving it its first spot in the NCAA Tournament in 10 years.