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Utah State basketball: Aggies eager to make a run in the NIT

The fourth-seeded Aggies would have preferred to be playing in the NCAA Tournament, but are thrilled to still have something to play for.

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Utah State guard RJ Eytle-Rock (5) celebrates with forward Justin Bean (34).

Utah State guard RJ Eytle-Rock (5) celebrates with forward Justin Bean (34) after a Utah State basket against New Mexico on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022, in Logan. The Aggies host the Oregon Ducks in the first round of the NIT.

Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP

Justin Bean is no quitter. Anyone who knows the walk-on-turned-all-time-Aggie-great will tell you that.

But the senior forward admits that before the final pairing of this year’s National Invitational Tournament was announced, the realization that Utah State’s season appeared to be over was too much to take and he walked out of the room.

Fortunately, his wife, Claire, and his sister didn’t give up until the very last pairing was announced on the NIT Selection Show.

“I heard screaming from the other room, so I went back and, sure enough, the Aggies were on the screen,” Bean said after USU’s practice in the Spectrum Monday afternoon. “So, that was pretty cool to see that.”

“Your heart is beating,” Bean added, “because you really want to see your team pop up there. And after all this team has been through and all of the adversity, it felt really good to finally see that recognition from the committee about how hard this team has worked.”

Needless to say, the fourth-seeded Aggies (18-15) would have preferred to be playing in the NCAA Tournament once again this week after making it to the Big Dance in 2019 and ’21, and also qualifying for the tourney in 2020 before it was canceled in the early days of the pandemic. But it’s also clear that Utah State is thrilled to still have something to play for when they host fifth-seeded Oregon (19-14) Tuesday night at the Spectrum.

“We’re obviously extremely grateful to be able to play in the NIT. It’s a great tournament and the field this year is really strong,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said. “We’re playing a great opponent in Oregon who has had a similar season to us, in a lot of ways. They’ve had some great wins, and they’ve had some hard losses. They’re a talented, well-coached group.”

“Our guys feel extremely fortunate and blessed to be able to play one more game here in the Spectrum in front of our fans, and I know our fans are excited about it.”

It is expected to be a great crowd at the Spectrum for USU’s first home NIT appearance since an 85-74 loss to Hawaii in 2004. An anonymous donor bought out the entire student section to help ensure that USU maintains its home-court advantage as much as possible against an Oregon Ducks team that finished fifth in the Pac-12 this season and has lost four of its last five games.

It’s hardly the kind of season Oregon head coach Dana Altman, who is 299-124 in 12 seasons in Eugene, envisioned coming into 2021-22, especially after the Ducks advanced to the Sweet Sixteen of last year’s NCAA Tournament and were ranked in this year’s Preseason AP Top 25 poll. But the veteran coach still expects his squad to be up to the challenge of playing in an entirely new, unfriendly environment despite not being scheduled to arrive in Logan until late Monday night.

“I think the guys were excited about having the opportunity to play again, so I was hoping we got that chance,” Altman said Monday morning.

Like the Aggies, who lost in their conference tournament on Thursday, the Ducks also held a light practice on Sunday before the NIT brackets were revealed. Altman said 6-foot-11 junior center N’Faly Dante (8.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and 7-foot freshman center Isaac Johnson (2.4 ppg) both set out that session due to illness, but he expects them to be available for Tuesday’s game.

The biggest question mark for the Ducks, though, remains the status of Will Richardson. The 6-5 senior guard leads Oregon in scoring (14.1 ppg) and 3-pointers (57) this season, but Richardson hasn’t seen action in UO’s last three games due to a “non-COVID-19 related illness.”

“I don’t know,” Altman replied when asked about Richardson’s status. “I know they’re running some tests this morning — he’s seeing the doctor and the trainer — but I haven’t heard anything.”

Richardson was held scoreless in the last game in which he saw action, a 78-67 loss at Washington, and only had two points in the game before that, a 70-69 home setback to No. 16 USC on Feb. 26.

But even if Richardson’s out of the lineup on Tuesday, Oregon still boasts three more double-digit scorers in senior guard Jacob Young (12.1 ppg), junior guard De’Vion Harmon (10.5 ppg) and junior forward Quincy Guerrier (10.3 ppg).

“We don’t know about Richardson at this point, but he’s a dynamite guard,” Odom noted. “He’s a lefty and Young is a left, as well, who was tremendous at both Texas and Rutgers before transferring to Oregon. He’s got a lot of similarities to (San Diego State’s Matt) Bradley in terms of scoring ability, ability to make others better and physicality.

“And (Guerrier) is a transfer from Syracuse who can really shoot it from beyond arc, but he’s also a physical guy who Bean will be matched up with to start the game. And then they have a bevy of bigs upfront that can really impact the game from a shot-blocking perspective and can really finish around the basket and post up.”

Odom also said the Ducks are “probably the fastest team we’ve played,” so USU’s transition defense will be a factor, while Oregon will likely play primarily matchup zone defense along with an “aggressive press.”

The Aggies come into Tuesday’s game 2-9 all time in the NIT with both of those victories coming back in 1960. However, they do have Odom, whose father, Dave, won three NIT titles — one at Wake Forest, and two at South Carolina.

Utah State is also probably in a better place emotionally this year as opposed to most NIT appearances that came following the letdown of being left out of the NCAA Tournament. After finishing seventh in the Mountain West, the Aggies knew they had to win four games in four days in order to get back to the Big Dance, but they ended up bowing out to No. 23 Colorado State in the quarterfinals.

Instead, they have a chance to play at least one more game together — most likely one more contest at the Spectrum for the four seniors: Bean, guard Brock Miller, forward Brandon Horvath and forward RJ Eytle-Rock.

“It’s huge,” Bean said of the Aggies being able to host a program like Oregon. “That was a surprise, honestly, having a Pac-12 team in the Spectrum. I don’t know then the last time that happened was (USC in 2013-14). So, it’s going to be exciting and something the fans are definitely going to love seeing.

“They’re a big, physical team, so we’re going to have a tough go of it. But we’re fundamentally sound and play good team defense, and hopefully that gets the job done for us (Tuesday night).”