As often happens to those visiting Las Vegas, the odds are against the Utah State Aggies being able to emerge from this week’s Mountain West Men’s Basketball Championship with the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
After three straight years of coming in as the No. 2 seed, Utah State (17-14) opens tournament play Wednesday afternoon as the No. 7 seed.
In the history of the Mountain West Conference, the lowest seed to ever win the postseason championship was Colorado State in 2003 as the No. 6 seed.
The Aggies, who last played a first-round game in 2019, will face No. 10 Air Force (11-17) at 2:30 p.m. (MT) at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
The winner of Wednesday’s game will then play No. 2 Colorado State (24-4) and Mountain West Player of the Year David Roddy at 7 p.m. (MT) Thursday.
“It’s going to take a lot of effort because everybody wants the same thing when they get to these tournaments,” USU head coach Ryan Odom said, “and so you’ve got to play disciplined, and you’ve got to go for it in that first game.
“You can’t worry about what’s on the other side of it because it might be nothing.”
Regular-season champion and No. 1 seed Boise State (24-7) will face the winner of Wednesday’s contest between No. 8 Nevada (12-17) and No. 9 New Mexico (13-8), while No. 6 Fresno State (18-12) and No. 11 San Jose State (8-22) will play for the honor of playing No. 3 San Diego State (21-7).
No. 4 Wyoming (24-7) and No. 5 UNLV (18-13) will face each other in Thursday’s other quarterfinal game.
At the moment, many NCAA Tournament prognosticators have Boise State, Colorado State, San Diego State and Wyoming all getting into this year’s field.
“I think it’s going to be a great tournament, obviously one that folks around the country are really excited about,” Odom said.
“I know all the teams and players and coaches and fans are fired up about our tournament as well. There’s a lot of great teams this year. It’s going to be really competitive.”
Odom, in his first year at the helm of the Aggies, added, “From top to bottom, it’s as deep as it’s probably ever been.
“Now, do we have that one team like a few years ago when San Diego was a No. 1 seed? No, we don’t have that, but we have really good squads. I think we will see some really close games.”
Optimistically speaking, the Aggies have already won a tournament this season — the Myrtle Beach Invitational back in late November — and Odom hopes that experience will be of benefit this week in Las Vegas.
Utah State opened that tourney with a hard-fought 87-79 double-overtime victory over Penn, then pummeled former rival New Mexico State 85-58 before beating Oklahoma 73-70 in the championship game.
“We’ve been through it before already,” Odom said. “I asked the guys the other day, ‘What do you remember about going down to Myrtle Beach? Did we go into that tournament saying, “We want to play Oklahoma?”’ They said no. ‘What did we do?’ And they said, ‘We focused on that first game.’”
“‘And do you remember how hard that first game was?’ And they all said, ‘Double overtime.’ So, it takes a lot of effort because everybody wants the same thing when they get to these tournaments.”
Besides experience, also aiding the Aggies in Las Vegas is the probable return of guards Steven Ashworth and Brock Miller.
Ashworth missed USU’s last regular-season game at San Jose State after suffering a hip injury earlier in the week at practice, while Miller, who missed most of conference play with a chronic back injury, reaggravated his injury a couple weeks back and then stayed in Logan following the birth of his first child last week.
But Odom said he expects both guards to see at least some action against the Falcons.
“Steven got back out there in practice (on Monday), which is good, and we’ll have another practice (Tuesday),” Odom said. “Brock’s had two practices under his belt after the birth of his child, so they both should be able to get minutes.
“Steven won’t start,” Odom added. “Rylan (Jones) will start the tournament, and Steven will kind of go back to that sixth man, Energizer guy for us, and he’s excited about that.”
The Aggies, who won the Mountain West tournament title in two of Craig Smith’s three seasons as head coach, come into Wednesday’s game having lost five of their final seven regular-season games.
Air Force, like the Aggies, beat last-place San Jose State in its latest contest, but the Falcons lost nine games in a row before that victory on March 1 in Colorado Springs.
Utah State and Air Force split the regular-season series, with the Falcons winning 49-47 on their home court on Dec. 29 and the Aggies running away with a 73-46 victory at the Spectrum on Feb. 1.
In the first game, Utah State shot a season-low 32.7% from the field but then turned the tables in Logan by shooting a then-season-best 61.9% in the rematch.
“We started out the conference season playing Air Force, and obviously we know the result there; they got the better of us in a tight game,” Odom said, “and then we played much better here against them later in the season. ...
“But we turned it over too many times here (18 times). It was one of our worst turnover games, but it was one of our better shooting games, obviously.
“I think some of that was our guys were just a little bit more confident, and they were a little more aggressive. So, without a doubt, we’ve got to be the aggressor (on Wednesday) on both sides of the ball.”
Senior guard A.J. Walker leads the Falcons in scoring (14.6 ppg) and 3-pointers (48), while freshman guards Jake Heidbreder (10.4 ppg) and Ethan Taylor (8.8 ppg) are second and third in scoring, respectively.
Walker scored 16 points on 6-of-15 shooting against the Aggies in December, but he only made 4 out of 15 shots on his way to eight points at the Spectrum.
Taylor, who didn’t score and was limited to just 26 minutes due to foul trouble in the first game, put up seven quick points in the first 11 minutes of the rematch at USU before leaving the game with an injury.
“One of the things about them for us is Taylor didn’t really play much in either game … and he averages 35 minutes,” Odom pointed out.
“So that’s just a little bit unusual, and he really helps their team. He’s a really good freshman and a good player overall, and obviously Walker’s a tremendous player. He’s capable of scoring big numbers, he’s really good in pick-and-roll and he’s good at posting up.”
For the Aggies, senior big men Justin Bean (18 points, 10 rebounds) and Brandon Horvath (nine points, 10 rebounds) led the way in USU’s loss at the Air Force Academy, and then both had totaled 17 points and nine boards on Feb. 1.
On Tuesday, the Mountain West announced that Bean (17.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 2.6 apg) had been selected as a second-team all-conference pick, while Horvath (13.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.7 apg) was a third-team selection.
Bean was also named to the MW’s all-defensive team.