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Jeff Hunter
Utah State guard Sam Merrill, center, and his teammates react as the Aggies' berth in the NCAA Tournament is announced Sunday afternoon in Logan.

LOGAN – Utah State head coach Craig Smith said senior center Quinn Taylor pointed out the irony shortly after the Aggies’ place in the 2019 NCAA Tournament field was revealed Sunday afternoon.

“It’s interesting. We were picked to finish ninth in conference play, and we got an eight seed in the NCAA Tournament,” Smith said of the highest seed ever for an Aggie basketball team.

“That kind of just makes you think a little bit. Like wow! Just how far these guys have come. And that is a sign for respect.”

Fresh on the heels of winning the Mountain West Men’s Basketball Championship Saturday night in Las Vegas, the eighth-seeded Aggies (28-6) will take on the ninth-seeded Washington Huskies (26-8) Friday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

" It’s an incredible feeling. I’m still not sure it’s sunk in yet. "
Sam Merrill

The game is scheduled to begin at 4:45 p.m. MDT, followed by No. 1 seed North Carolina (27-6) vs. No. 16 seed Iona (17-15) at 7:15 p.m. Should they beat Washington, the Aggies would play the winner of that game on Sunday, March 24.

The Huskies were the regular-season champs in the Pac-12 and advanced to the postseason championship game on Saturday, where they lost to Oregon, 68-48.

“We’re really excited to go to Columbus and play a really good Washington team,” USU junior guard Sam Merrill said following the Aggies’ watch party Sunday afternoon at the West Stadium Center adjacent to Maverik Stadium. “We want to try and make the most of this opportunity, and we’re humbled to be able to represent Utah State University.”

The eighth seed is the highest ever awarded to a Utah State team, besting the No. 10 seed given to Aggie teams in 1983 and ’88.

Picked in finish ninth in a preseason media poll, Smith guided Utah State to a share of the Mountain West regular-season title in his first year at the helm. The Aggies then made sure that Sunday had as little drama as possible by earning the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament with wins over New Mexico, Fresno State and San Diego State over three consecutive nights in Sin City.

“It’s an incredible feeling. I’m still not sure it’s sunk in yet,” Merrill noted. “To finally hear our name called makes me even more grateful that we won yesterday. Going through those first couple of regions, I was shaking. I wanted to know where we were going, so I can only imagine what it would have been like had we lost yesterday.”

It’s perhaps a good omen that the Aggies are going to the hometown of the last team they defeated in the NCAA Tournament. But since No. 12 seed Utah State knocked off No. 5 seed Ohio State in 2001, the program has gone 0-7 in the Big Dance, with the last appearance and loss coming against Kansas State eight years ago.

Included in those seven straight defeats is a 75-61 loss to Washington in San Diego, California, in 2006, when the Aggies were a No. 12 seed and the Huskies, led by future NBA guard Brandon Roy, were a No. 5 seed.

Washington, which was also last in the Big Dance in 2011, is 18-17 all-time in the NCAA Tournament in its 17 trips.

Washington won the Pac-12 this season with a 15-3 mark in conference play. But after winning 15 out of 16 games during one stretch, the Huskies have lost three of their last seven games.

“I know (the Huskies) ran through the Pac-12. I think they stumbled a little bit at the end of the season, but I know they’re a really good team,” Merrill said.

Washington lost at Arizona State, 75-63, on Feb. 9, while the Sun Devils also defeated Utah State this season, 87-82, on Nov. 21 on a neutral court in Las Vegas.

The Huskies are led by sophomore guard Jaylen Nowell, who is averaging 16.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, while senior guard David Crisp is averaging 12.7 points and senior forward Noah Dickerson is averaging 12.4 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Nowell and senior guard Matisse Thybulle were both named to the Pac-12 first team, while Dickerson earned honorable mention honors.

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Mike Hopkins is in his second year at the helm of the Huskies and has an overall 47-21 record. He came to Seattle after spending the previous 22 seasons as an assistant under Jim Boeheim.

“I haven’t really seen Washington play this year, but I know their head coach, Coach Hopkins, came from Syracuse, so I know they play exclusively the Syracuse match-up zone, so to speak,” Smith noted. “And they’re the Pac-12 champions, so it should be a heck of a contest.”

The home of the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets, Nationwide Arena has a capacity of 19,500 for basketball games.