LOGAN — The Aggies’ veteran players are well aware of the potential for an upset Thursday night at the Mountain West Men’s Basketball Championship. After all, a year ago they were the No. 7 seed that delivered the knockout blow to second-seeded Boise State at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.
While first-year head coach Craig Smith wasn’t around for that stunning win over the Broncos, he is still very familiar with the potential for an upset as the No. 2-seeded Aggies (25-6) gear up to play the seventh-seeded New Mexico Lobos (14-17) Thursday in the quarterfinals.
“You see some upsets, but not only are there upsets, you're seeing teams that maybe, quite frankly, underachieved throughout the year,” Smith said. “All of a sudden, they get to the tournament and it's a clean slate. and they start all over, play hard and play together. All of a sudden, they play like maybe they could've played, I guess you can say.”
New Mexico earned a shot at a huge upset of the Aggies thanks to a 78-68 victory over No. 10 seed Wyoming (8-24) on Wednesday afternoon. The Lobos prevailed despite their leading scorer, senior guard Anthony Mathis, going just 1 for 13 from the field on his way to six points. A big game by UConn transfer Vance Jackson (26 points, eight rebounds, five assists) helped New Mexico rally back from a 13-point, second-half deficit.
Utah State swept the Lobos during the regular season, grinding out a dramatic 68-66 win at The Pit on Jan. 26 thanks to a last-second 3-pointer by Abel Porter, then pulling away in the second half for a 71-55 victory at the Spectrum on Feb. 20.
“New Mexico is incredibly talented up and down the whole roster and have a lot of guys that can really make some plays,” Smith said of the Lobos. “… Their team is averaging 17 offensive rebounds per game in the last five games (going into the tournament). They are playing bigger now and are almost like another different team.”
The Aggies have won seven straight games coming into the tournament — the longest current winning streak in the Mountain West. But is it possible to be the hottest team in the conference, as well as the best-rested team in the league?
The Aggies haven’t played a game since their regular-season finale at Colorado State on March 5. While the team was feeling a bit banged up and leg-weary at the time, it’s certainly possible that some rust has set in after a nine-day layoff.
“Last year at South Dakota, we also had our bye on the last weekend, so that might've helped us with knowing what we wanted to do,” Smith said. “We gave the guys two days off and we needed it. Looking back at that Colorado State game, we were two steps slow, and not even a half step slow in that game. We were very fortunate to win that game.
"We gave our guys two days off and then the first two days, we really fine-tuned our stuff. I thought we've been sharper with a lot of different things on both sides of the ball.”
Coming into the MW tourney, Utah State is the only team in the league that did not play at the Thomas & Mack Center this year. The Aggies hosted UNLV on Feb. 2 in the lone game between the two programs during the 2018-19 season, so the Lobos will likely be more comfortable with their surroundings Thursday night.
But while New Mexico will be fighting just to keep their season alive, the Aggies will be trying to win, as well as attempting to pad their at-large resume for the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. While virtually all “bracketologists” suggest Utah State will be in the Big Dance even if they don’t win the tournament, the Aggies certainly aren’t comfortable with the thought of going out early in Vegas.3 comments on this story
"We all have Twitter. We all see everything, and people are lying to you if they say they don’t look at it,” said USU junior guard Sam Merrill, who was named the Mountain West Player of the Year on Tuesday. “But that doesn’t define how we’re going to work because we want to win the conference tournament.”
In addition to Merrill’s accolades, Smith was voted as the Mountain West Coach of the Year, while center Neemias Queta picked up Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Aggies on the air
New Mexico (14-17)
vs. Utah State (25-6)
Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas
Thursday, 7 p.m. (MDT)
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: Aggie Radio Network 1280 AM