TUCSON, Ariz. — If you ask USU basketball coach Stew Morrill what he wants from his team Thursday in the NCAA Tournament, he'll offer the standard shopaholic slogan: He wants it all.
He wants deadly shooting, ferocious rebounding, laser passing and disruptive defense. Asked to choose between great defense and offense, he replies, "I'd rather go in with both."
He wants the sports car and the monster SUV.
And an extra set of premium tires while he's at it.
But if you want to get picky about it, the proof is in the stats. He'll have to hang his hopes on his defense. If the Aggies have a chance at beating No. 5 seed Kansas State, they'll want to do their best airport security impersonation: observe, scan, frisk, interrogate, detain.
Morrill wants KSU star Jacob Pullen hounded from the time he gets off the plane.
Stalking is a bad thing in real life, but in sports it's just good business.
While good defense is standard jargon for all teams, it's especially true for teams like USU. In most tournament games, it will have less athleticism and speed than its opponent. A team can combat that by stepping on toes, figuratively and literally. It pushes and paws its opponent, maybe throwing in some trash talk for good measure. Soon the other guys are trying crazy things, taking wild shots, complaining to the refs.
Then the odds aren't so intimidating.
Fortunately for the Aggies, this has been a fine defensive year. They have the third-best scoring defense in the nation (58.2 ppg), the fourth-best field goal percentage defense (38.3 percent) and the 13th best 3-point field goal defense (30.2 percent). As The Police noted in their signature '80s rock song:
Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I'll be watching you
This isn't just talk on USU's part. The Aggies mean that stuff. They led the WAC in seven defensive categories. Morrill says of 25 teams he has coached at Montana, Colorado State and USU, this year's edition "has got to be in the top two or three defensively — experienced, mentally tough, physical, and able to play a couple of defenses pretty dang solidly."
He continues, "So when you get challenged all of a sudden with a different level of athlete and length, that really challenges your D, so hopefully we can step up."
In its own unheralded way, USU has done just that. Boise State, the WAC's No. 2 team, couldn't get above 34 percent shooting in two regular-season games against the Aggies. St. Mary's shot just 39 percent, BYU 38 percent. USU held its opponent under 40 percent shooting 19 times this season.
Getting uncontested shots against the Aggies was like plowing through a thicket.
"We're a solid offensive team, but we've been a better defensive team," Morrill says. "It comes down to you've got to make shots and limit the other team from scoring at ease. That gives you a chance."10 comments on this story
Morrill points out his team played well defensively against Marquette in 2009 in the NCAA Tournament (a 58-57 loss) but didn't last year against Texas A&M (a 69-53 loss). While all teams preach defense, it's the best opportunity teams from mid-major conferences have to win.
The most effective way to limit someone is to frustrate him.
"We've got to try to put ourselves in a position to win," Morrill says.
So if the Aggies do win Thursday, they might do so on a last-second shot, but it will just as likely come on a stolen pass, a blocked shot or by taking a charge. Pouring on points is one thing, but winning with defense is its own kind of beautiful.