As one of the more articulate and knowledgeable college basketball players in the country, Utah State’s Steven Ashworth is well-versed in Aggies basketball history, particularly regarding how the program has fared in the NCAA Tournament.

“We talk a lot in this program about how pressure is a privilege, and playing in the tournament is pressure basketball, and that is what you want to be doing in March is playing basketball where it really matters. We have that goal to go out and get the first win in a long time.” — Utah State guard Steven Ashworth

It isn’t a pretty picture, says the point guard from Alpine’s Lone Peak High who somehow escaped instate rival BYU’s grasp in Utah County and is now one of the top competitors in the Mountain West Conference.

“It has been a few years since we have had a win in the NCAA Tournament, so super excited about our opportunity and the experience that we are going to go have come Thursday,” Ashworth said.

By a “few years,” Ashworth means 22 years. Utah State’s last win in the Big Dance came in 2001, when the No. 12-seeded Aggies upset No. 5 seed Ohio State 77-68 in overtime. Fourth-seeded UCLA routed USU 75-50 two days later, the first of nine straight tournament losses for the Logan school.

Having received a tough-to-get (for a mid-major) at-large berth in March Madness this year, the Aggies (26-8) got a No. 10 seed and will face No. 7 seed Missouri (24-9) on Thursday at 11:40 a.m. MST at Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center in the South Region.

The game will be televised on TNT. Although a lower seed, USU was a 1.5-point favorite when the oddsmakers first weighed in Monday.

But the Aggies will approach the game with the same underdog mentality that has carried them all season after they were picked to finish eighth in the Mountain West last fall, Ashworth said.

“We talk a lot in this program about how pressure is a privilege, and playing in the tournament is pressure basketball, and that is what you want to be doing in March is playing basketball where it really matters,” he said. “We have that goal to go out and get the first win in a long time.”

The Aggies last played in the tournament in 2021, losing 65-53 to Texas Tech in the “bubble” in Indianapolis, when COVID-19 restrictions kept fans away. Ashworth and fellow guard Max Shulga are the only current Aggies who played in that game, with Ashworth posting an assist, three rebounds and no points in 16 minutes.

Shulga got in for less than a minute.

“That experience overall should help us Thursday,” Ashworth said.

After Utah State fought past Boise State 72-62 in a MW semifinal last Friday, a victory that probably pushed the Aggies out of a first-four game, Ashworth spoke passionately about what it will mean to the program to break its NCAA Tournament curse.

“When the fans support us, it just adds that extra element that we are able to play for something more than ourselves,” he said. “We talk a lot about making sure that we leave the jersey in a better place. And when you become an Aggie, it is not just about yourself. It is about all the people that have come before you, and all the people that are going to come after you, and the people that are here supporting us as well.”

At halftime of that game, when the Aggies were trailing 36-28, Odom urged his players to “be us” and stop playing beyond their capabilities. Ashworth took that to heart.

“That second half, we saw Aggie basketball. We were aggressive. We were playing free, we were going for it, we had no fear,” he said. “We were trusting each other when we needed to. That is Aggie basketball to its core. A big word I think about is trust. And that is what this team has in every single guy, one through 15.

The Aggies are going dancing, claiming the No. 10 seed to take on a very similar squad in No. 7 Missouri
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“When we can trust each other, that’s when we are playing our best.”

Utah State is not the most athletic team in the tourney, but plays underrated defense and when its outside shooting is clicking, it is tough to beat. The Aggies are No. 5 in the country in 3-point shooting percentage (39.3) and 21st in made 3-pointers per game, 9.4.

“At Utah State, you feel like you are playing for a bigger purpose, and the guys are locked in, and I think you can see that on the defensive end,” said Ashworth, who has emerged as the heart and soul of the team and its emotional leader. “I take pride in making sure that we get the crowd involved and let them know they are a big piece to what we are trying to accomplish and that we appreciate them.”

Of course, there are some USU players and coaches who were part of one of the most historic wins in tournament history — the University of Maryland-Baltimore County’s stunning 74-54 upset of Virginia in 2018, the first and only time a No. 16 seed beat a No. 1 seed.

UMBC players celebrate their 74-54 win over Virginia in a first-round game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament in Charlotte, N.C., on March 16, 2018. Current Utah State coach Ryan Odom was the coach of that UMBC team that pulled off that historic upset. | Chuck Burton, Associated Press

USU coach Ryan Odom directed that “unbelievable” achievement as UMBC’s coach, and Aggie center Dan Akin played 22 minutes and scored two points. USU assistants Nate Dixon and Bryce Crawford were also on Odom’s staff at UMBC in 2018.

“For Dan (Akin), it goes way back to when we were the 16 seed and he felt it,” Odom said Sunday. “He knew what it was like to be in it at a really high level, and so to see him get the opportunity again is really neat.”

Odom said this USU team has the same belief in itself as that UMBC team.

“This team is confident like that team, and that team was very confident,” Odom said. “They felt like they could play with anybody regardless of what everybody said. They didn’t really go around listening to what others said. They just tried to do their best in each and every game.”

Aggies on the air

NCAA Tournament

No. 10 Utah State (26-8)
vs. No. 7 Missouri (24-9)
Thursday, 11:40 a.m. MDT
At Golden 1 Center, Sacramento
Radio: 1280 The Zone

Missouri doesn’t have a great NCAA Tournament history, either. The Tigers’ record in the Big Dance is 22-28. However, their 1994 appearance was vacated by the NCAA so their official record is 19-27.

BYU, Utah State’s instate rival, has the notorious distinction of having the most NCAA Tournament appearances, 30, without reaching a Final Four. Missouri and Xavier are up next, with 29.

“They are a really solid team. They obviously have some great offensive players, and play in the SEC, a really high-caliber conference, so to be able to go out to Sacramento and compete against a team like that is going to be a lot of fun,” said Ashworth, a self-confessed basketball junkie who acknowledged watching Missouri defeat No. 17 Tennessee 79-71 in the SEC tournament Friday before the Aggies knocked off Boise State later that night.

Utah State Aggies forward Dan Akin (30) celebrates after being fouled on a shot as Utah State and Boise State play in the Mountain West Conference Basketball Tournament at UNLV’s Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas on Friday, March 10, 2023. Akin was a member of the 2018 No. 16-seeded UMBC team that upset No. 1 seed Virginia in the NCAA Tournament. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News