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Utah State basketball: USU draws Illinois State in NIT

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Ten games into the season, playing in their ninth straight postseason was the farthest thing from the Utah State Aggies' minds.

The Aggies were 5-5 and coming off a 24-point loss to rival Utah for their largest loss margin of the season to date.

A change in the starting lineup sent Stephen DuCharme and DeUndrae Spraggins to the bench as freshmen Tai Wesley and Tyler Newbold were inserted into the starting lineup.

From there, Utah State reeled off 12 straight wins before losing to New Mexico State by 30, then won three more to give itself a two-game cushion in the WAC standings, and the prospect of making the postseason started to work its way back into the picture.

Three straight losses to Nevada, Hawaii and San Jose took the Aggies out of first and looking up at two and sometimes three teams, and again the postseason seemed to take a backseat.

With three games remaining, the Aggies needed to win out in order to lock up a share of the WAC title, the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, and a guaranteed berth into the National Invitation Tournament if they didn't make the Big Dance.

That week proved huge with wins over Fresno State, Boise State and Idaho because the Aggies (24-10) lost to Boise State in the WAC semifinals last Friday and, as expected, didn't get an at-large bid to the NCAAs.

Sunday night the Aggies still got the call for their ninth straight postseason bid though. They will face Illinois State (24-9) Wednesday night at 8 p.m. in Normal, Ill., in the first round of the NIT. Utah State is the only WAC team in the NIT.

WAC co-champs Nevada and New Mexico State, which lost to Boise State in triple overtime in the WAC final Saturday, were left out.

"Obviously, we would have loved to of done what Boise did. When you look at the whole scheme of things back when we were 5-5, this team came a long ways," Utah State coach Stew Morrill said. "There are a lot of people that are done. We've gotten kind of used to playing this week, and it's nice to still be in that situation."

Utah State guard Jaycee Carroll agreed.

"In that sense I feel very fortunate to continue on and get to the postseason in all four of my years," he said.

The Redbirds, a No. 2 seed in the NIT, lost to Drake, 79-49, in the Missouri Valley Conference finals eight days ago, which essentially cost them a bid to the NCAA tournament. Utah State enters the tournament as a No. 7 seed.

Should the Aggies win they would play the winner of Dayton-Cleveland State later on the weekend.

Prior to the loss to Drake, the Redbirds (24-9), who have the 34th-best RPI, had won 10 straight games before the loss.

It will be the fifth meeting between the two teams, and the series it tied at 2-2.

The Redbirds beat the Aggies, 93-87, in the 1995 NIT.

National Invitational Tournament

All Times EDT First Round

Tuesday's games

Stephen F. Austin (26-5) at Massachusetts (21-10), 6 p.m.

UNC Asheville (23-9) at Ohio State (19-13), 7 p.m.

Robert Morris (26-7) at Syracuse (19-13), 8 p.m.

Akron (23-10) at Florida St. (19-14), 9 p.m.

Oklahoma State (17-15) at Southern Illinois (17-14), 9 p.m.

Maryland (18-14) at Minnesota (20-13), 9:30 p.m.

Rhode Island (21-11) at Creighton (21-10), 10 p.m.

Alabama State (20-10) at Arizona State (19-12), 11 p.m.

Wednesday's games

Cleveland State (21-12) at Dayton (21-10), 6 p.m.

Morgan State (22-10) at Virginia Tech (19-13), 7 p.m.

UAB (22-10) at Virginia Commonwealth (24-7), 7 p.m.

UC Santa Barbara (23-8) at Mississippi (21-10), 8 p.m.

Charlotte (20-13) at Nebraska (19-12), 9 p.m.

San Diego State (20-12) at Florida (21-11), 9 p.m.

UTAH STATE (24-10) at Illinois State (24-9), 10 p.m.

New Mexico (24-8) at California (16-15), 11 p.m.

E-mail: jhinton@desnews.com