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Utah State will get its taste of historic Assembly Hall in NCAA first-round matchup

SHARE Utah State will get its taste of historic Assembly Hall in NCAA first-round matchup

In this photo taken on Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021, Indiana plays Minnesota at Assembly Hall during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, in Bloomington, Ind. Assembly Hall is one of six venues hosting NCAA Tournament games.

Darron Cummings, Associated Press

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The building now known as Simon Skojdt Assembly Hall is, without a doubt, one of the most hallowed venues in college basketball. 

A lot of that reverence, of course, has to do with the incredible success of longtime Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight, who took over the Hoosiers’ helm the same year the facility opened in 1971. “The General” won 662 games and three national championships during his 29 years at IU before his tenure came to an end in 2000.

Although the Hoosiers have struggled to recapture those glory days — in fact, most recent head coach, Archie Miller, was fired earlier this week — Assembly Hall is still viewed as a special place by those with a passion for basketball. That’s why Utah State head coach Craig Smith was grateful that his team had a chance to practice at the 17,222-seat facility on Wednesday morning in preparation for the Aggies’ game against Texas Tech Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. 

Prior to then, only two members of the USU program had every coached or played on the floor at Assembly Hall: Smith visited Bloomington twice as an assistant coach at Nebraska, and graduate manager Brandon Ubel played there four times as a Cornhusker, twice when Nebraska was in the Big 12 and then twice more after the school had transitioned to the Big 10.

“When we first walked into Assembly Hall, Brandon Ubel says, ‘Oh, I have nightmares about this place. We got boat-trucked my senior year.’ And we did,’” Smith said.

Put on a plane in Las Vegas Sunday night, the Aggies didn’t even know where they were playing until arriving in Indianapolis at 1 a.m. Monday. Later that day during a Zoom meeting with his team, Smith said he told the Aggies he felt that had a “really fortunate draw in terms of location.”

“I’m a history major, and I’m a history guy when it comes to nostalgia and tradition,” Smith said. “So, that’s what I talked about with our team, was the rich tradition of excellence of Indiana basketball and the history in that arena.”

Prior to Wednesday’s practice, the Aggies were able to take a brief tour of IU’s practice facility and then take in the view of what Smith termed “the unique layout” of Assembly Hall. But while Smith is very familiar with how loud the building can get when packed with 17,000-plus people, only 500 fans will be allowed for Friday’s game — far below the 25% capacity of other tourney venues — with each player allowed six family members. 

“When we first walked out into the gym, everybody was literally like ‘Wow!’” Smith said. “... It was nice to get out there and get a full practice in.”

BEARD SIMILARITIES: Ever since the announcement of Friday’s matchup was made last Sunday night, quite a bit has been made of the unique friendship between Smith and Texas Tech head coach Chris Beard, which was initially developed through the transfer of Matt Mooney, who played for Smith at South Dakota, to the Red Raiders in 2018.

That reached another level on Thursday when Smith shared a couple of experiences, the first a conversation he had with Mooney, who he desperately wanted to transfer to USU after he took the job in Logan. 

“That would have been a heck of a backcourt with Mooney and Sam Merrill,” Smith pointed out. “But he thought we would be rebuilding like everybody did ... and he told me, ‘I don’t think I’d ever be able to live with myself if I don’t play in the NCAA Tournament.’”

Mooney went on to to be an integral part of the Texas Tech team that lost to Virginia in overtime in the National Championship game in 2019, and Smith said he asked him afterward, “Why did you choose Texas Tech? And he said, ‘Coach, honestly, Chris Beard reminds me a lot of you. Just with your personality and your passion.’”

In addition, Smith said when he was at Colorado State, he recruited Terran Petteway very hard for two years, but Petteway ended up going to Texas Tech and playing for Pat Knight and his assistant coach, Chris Beard. But Knight ended up getting fired, and soon Petteway was looking for somewhere else to play. His father ended up reaching out to Smith, who had moved onto Nebraska, and Petteway finished his college career as a Cornhusker.

“He and his parents always said, ‘You remind us of Chris Beard,’” Smith said. “That’s them talking, not me talking. But it’s interesting the six degrees of separation and how things have kind of come full circle.”

BACK AGAIN: Freshman Steven Ashworth served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Indiana Indianapolis Mission, and thanks to the NCAA’s plan to play the entire tournament in and around Indianapolis, the backup point guard is right back in the Hoosier State less than a year later.

According to USU assistant athletic media relations director Kyle Cottam, Ashworth spent most of his two years laboring in the vicinity of Indianapolis. However, one of the former Lone Peak High star’s areas was in the Bloomington, and once while participating in “splits” with another missionary companionship, Ashworth did spend some time on the campus of Indiana University where the Aggies will play Friday.