SALT LAKE CITY — Utah State’s Craig Smith spent a fair amount of Selection Sunday’s afterglow talking about history. That’s what people do in March. His own includes reaching a national championship game in a previous coaching iteration.
Like any other month, March has had its share of historical moments. In 537 A.D., Belisarius saved Rome from the Goths. Forty-five years ago this month, Watergate hit the fan. The Salvation Army began business in 1880.
In March 1775, Patrick Henry thundered, “Give me liberty or give me death!”
BYU, Utah and Weber State did something similar on Sunday, declaring “Give us an NCAA/NIT bid or give us death!”
Rest in peace, 2018-19.
Smith took over a Mayville State team in 2004 that had gone 1-27 the previous season. He reached the NAIA tournament the first year, the Elite Eight the next, and the national championship game the following year.
“Once you get a taste of that, you never want to go back,” Smith said.
Back to the tournament or back to missing it?
Here’s a clue.
“It's so special and so hard to do, but once you get that feeling, you just don't want to let it go,” Smith said.
No wonder the Aggies are relishing their first NCAA invitation since 2011. They received bids eight times in the first 11 years of the new millennium, but only one resulted in a victory. So while returning to the tournament is big for the program, winning is an entirely different proposal. USU is 6-22 all-time, but of those victories, five came before 1971.
The Aggies prevail once every half-century.
Success on Friday would put them well ahead of schedule.
“It’s been a historic run and a magical season,” Smith said.
The Aggies’ No. 8 seeding is the highest in program annals. Important as it is to reach the tournament, if they seriously want to be historic, they should win at least one game this week. Other than their 2001 first-round upset of Ohio State, they last prevailed in 1970, beating UTEP and Santa Clara.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Smith said on Sunday, praising his team’s dedication.
The same could be said about winning.
USU had hoped to be placed in the Salt Lake regional, starting Thursday at Vivint Arena. That would basically amount to a home game. But the NCAA Selection Committee had a different vision, instead sending the Aggies to Columbus, Ohio. They meet Pac-12 regular-season winner Washington.
USU might not be the best team in any of the tournament regions, but it’s clearly the best in the Beehive State. Utah, BYU, Utah Valley, Weber State and Southern Utah failed to qualify for either the NCAA or NIT events. BYU, Utah and WSU announced they would not accept invitations from the smaller CBI or CIT tournaments. But UVU accepted a bid to the CBI, while SUU agreed to play in the CIT.
Schools with a long tournament history hold themselves to a higher standard.
Utah State’s 2001 team was in some ways as low-key as its postseason record. Five players scored between eight and 12 points a game during the regular season. The Aggies beat Utah by a point, lost to BYU by a bucket, and reached the NCAA Tournament solely on the merits of winning the conference tournament. The first-round regional win over OSU was a shocker, as the Aggies were a 12 seed.9 comments on this story
USU’s 1970 team, on the other hand, was relatively high-profile, featuring NBA players Nate Williams and Marv Roberts.
Roberts spoke to this year’s Aggies at a team practice. So while reaching the tournament is a major step, if they want to truly make history, they can’t afford to be one-and-done.
“To this point,” said star player Sam Merrill, “it's been incredible and we're obviously very excited to have helped bring Utah State basketball where it needs to be."
That’s a good way of looking at it: To this point.