Brad Rock: For Utah State, feeling bad just seems unavoidable
TUCSON, Ariz. — Because Stew Morrill won't allow himself to feel completely bad about a 30-win season, let me do at least a bit of it for him.
You know, take off some of the pressure.
For the seventh time in the last dozen years, Utah State lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday. Same stuff, different year. The Aggies get a low seed, combined with a strong opponent, and the history repeats.
Hello heartache. Bye-bye "Hoosiers II."
Each year a few little guys win early; just not the Aggies.
"It's always tough when it ends," Morrill said.
Just as America is tuning in to March Madness each spring, Utah State is tuning out. Nevertheless, that didn't keep the USU coach from declaring this season an unmitigated success, a few days before the the Aggies' lost 73-68 to Kansas State Thursday.
"There's nothing or anybody this year that will make me feel bad," he said. "I refuse to feel bad about 30-3 (now 30-4) and 15-1 and conference tournament champs, and last year I let myself feel bad when everybody wanted to say, 'Utah State, they gotta win the first round, and they didn't.'
"OK, well, we're gonna try like heck and we're excited to play, but there's nothing bad that can happen. Good can happen, but nothing bad can happen at this point."
But, of course, it did on Thursday.
There was no disguising the disappointment in Morrill's face, or the red, teary eyes of star forward Tai Wesley afterward.
"They were a big, strong, physical team. We knew that coming in," said Wesley.
I should point out a differentiation here. Morrill hasn't had losing seasons, just losing postseasons. You want to beat him in WAC play, you better call in reinforcements. But on the national stage, USU has long chafed under the label of "mid-major."
There are 346 schools that rate Divison-I status in NCAA basketball, and Utah State is among them. It has been to the NCAA tournament nine times since 1998, 20 times overall. A seldom mentioned fact is that USU played in the inaugural NCAA tournament in 1939, losing in the first game to Oklahoma (back then it wasn't one-and-out) and winning on the second night against Texas.
Yet through the years, Aggie basketball has been widely disrespected, or at least dismissed.
Sometimes they come close; usually they give it all they have, which is often far less than the opposition.
"We just kept competing. That's what we've done all year," Morrill said.
At the same time, USU's problems in the post-season are obvious. The Aggies are 6-22 in the NCAA's, 2-9 in the NIT. They have won just one game in the post-season (2001) since 1970. Thursday they hung tough most of the game. But as the first half waned, the KSU lead stretched to 14.
USU didn't help itself with eight first-half turnovers. Though the Aggies managed to hold KSU to a manageable 36 percent in the first half — usually a good sign — the Wildcats were getting more shots, rebounds and assists. More of everything.
"Other than about a six- or seven-minute stretch in the first half," said Morrill, "it was a pretty competitive game."
As the night stretched out, it started looking a lot like games against Texas A&M last year, Washington in 2006 and Arizona in 2005.
When Morrill saw his team's No. 12 seeding Sunday, he shrugged, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
That's true, especially when it comes to winning in the tournament.
Morrill is right in saying he shouldn't be upset about a 30-win season. But feeling bad about the ending? Of course he does. USU always seems to end up looking a lot like the ending of the film "Easy Rider." Two sorta cool motorcycle guys are cruising along, enjoying the ride, when somebody in a truck comes along and shoots them off their motorcycles.
The last scene has the camera panning away, the smoke from the burning bike trailing into the sky.
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