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Utah State snubbed on heels of loss in conference tournament

LOGAN — Utah State's NCAA tournament bubble burst Sunday afternoon.

An extended stay in the national rankings, an RPI in the low 40s, 25 wins and a Big West Conference regular-season conference co-championship weren't enough to earn the Aggies a spot in the field of 65.

"It's real disappointing," Utah State's Cardell Butler said.

Deseret News graphicDNews graphic2004 NIT bracketRequires Adobe Acrobat.

It is believed the Aggies (25-3) are the first nationally ranked team not to make the NCAA tournament. The Aggies' season isn't over, however. They were invited to the NIT and will play Hawaii on Wednesday in Logan at 7 p.m. Tickets for the game go on sale today at the Utah State ticket office.

The Aggies, the No. 1 seed in last week's Big West Conference tournament, lost to Northridge 63-62 in the semifinals, and ultimately that game cost them the NCAA bid.

"The bottom line is that you have to win the conference tournament," Utah State coach Stew Morrill said. "It doesn't diminish the great year we've had. It doesn't diminish the things that we accomplished, but it is certainly tough."

Utah State senior guard Mark Brown agreed.

"We're completely responsible. We play the games. We're responsible for all three of our losses,"

Brown said. "We take complete responsibility for it." Pacific, the winner of the Big West tournament, received a No. 12 seed and will play Providence in Kansas City on Friday.

"We had a chance to play our way into the tournament like we've done several times when we haven't won the regular season, so the shoe has been on the other foot," Morrill said. "When you've benefited from winning the tournament you have to take the consequences when you don't."

Richmond, BYU, Air Force and UTEP — all bubble teams — got in the tournament, which hurt the Aggies' chances.

"When I saw Richmond up there that really concerned me," Morrill said. "Then you have BYU and UTEP at the end and then we're out."

The Aggies spent six weeks in the Associated Press Top 25 and posted their best winning percentage in school history. Many experts believed the Aggies had built a solid enough resume to lock down a bid despite the one-point loss to Northridge.

"There are a lot of experts out there that seem to know a lot of things, but they don't know, the committee knows," Morrill said.

Utah State, along with St. Joseph's, Air Force, Southern Illinois and Duke, just to mention a few, were teams that won their regular-season conference titles but not their postseason tournaments. But the Atlantic-10, Mountain West and ACC have higher conference rankings. The Big West ranks 18th of 31 conferences. Only seven of the Big West teams had winning records.

Morrill said it is difficult to build a strong strength of schedule and higher RPI in that situation, and both carry weight by the committee in determining seeds.

"First it's strength of schedule then RPI. It's a vicious cycle," Morrill said.

Air Force, for example, had an RPI of 70 to Utah State's 43. The Falcons' strength of schedule was 183 to Utah State's 186, and Utah State lost only one game to a Top 50 opponent and Air Force lost three.

The Aggies last played in the NIT in 2002 against Montana State and lost 77-69 at the Smith Spectrum.

"Obviously, any postseason is a positive reflection on our program and the year we've just completed," Morrill said. "I would be less than honest if I said we weren't disappointed in not making the NCAA Tournament, but we have to move forward in a hurry with the challenge presented to us Wednesday night."


E-mail: jhinton@desnews.com