Isaac Brekken
Utah State's Quinn Taylor, left, and Neemias Queta react after a foul call during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against San Diego State in the Mountain West Conference men's tournament championship Saturday, March 16, 2019, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Washington head coach Mike Hopkins didn’t hesitate to respond when asked if he had concerns about facing the No. 25 Utah State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament during Thursday’s press conference at Nationwide Arena.

“I have a lot of concerns,” Hopkins declared. “They’re a heck of a team. Sam Merrill is one of the best players that nobody knows about around the country. We’re talking about a guy who had got double the assists of anybody on their team. And we’re talking about a guy who averages over 20 points a game.

“Then there’s Neemias Queta, a guy who averages close to a double-double and is averaging three shot blocks a game,” Hopkins continued. “I remember hearing about him in the middle of the year. They were talking about this great center at Utah State. Where did he come from? Who recruited him? Who did this?”

The answer, of course, is USU head coach Craig Smith, who has the 8th-seeded Aggies (28-6) in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011. After tying Nevada for first place in the Mountain West during the regular season, Utah State secured a spot in the Big Dance for certain by winning the conference’s postseason tournament last week in Las Vegas.

“He’s done a tremendous job,” Hopkins said of Smith. “That league is very, very good. And to be able to win the way they did is a credit to them. And it’s going to be a heck of a challenge. And they pose a lot of challenges.”

As do the ninth-seeded Huskies (26-8), who won the regular-season Pac-12 title and two games in the conference tourney before bowing out to Oregon, 68-48, on March 16. Washington is led offensively by sophomore guard and 2019 Pac-12 Player of the Year Jaylen Nowell (16.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg), senior guard David Crisp (12.5 ppg) and senior forward Noah Dickerson (12.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg).

However, it’s the defensive prowess of 6-foot-5 senior forward Matisse Thybulle that led Smith to state: I’ve had to take a lot of Advil over the last four days, because he’s a headache.” “... He’s almost like Deion Sanders in football. When Deion Sanders played, it was like he eliminated whatever side of the field he was on. He’s so instinctive, so quick-twitch, so long and his hands are so fast. And for a guy to average over three steals a game with two blocked shots a game is incredible.”

A longtime assistant under Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, Hopkins brought Boeheim’s trademark matchup zone with him to Seattle two years ago. Since then, the Huskies have won 21 and 26 games and Hopkins just signed a six-year contract extension that could keep him at UW through the 2024-25 season. Led by Thybulle, Washington forced 17.5 turnovers a game this season in Pac-12 play.

“That’s hard to do,” Smith pointed out. “And they’re doing it mainly just in the half court, so (Thybulle) is certainly a monster part of it.”

After winning 14 of their first 15 Pac-12 games, the Huskies cooled off a bit down the stretch, going just 4-3 over their last seven contests. Conversely, the Aggies have won 10 games in a row and 17 of their last 18. The No. 8 seed is the highest in school history for a USU team, making this the first time the Aggies could be considered a favorite going into an NCAA Tournament game.

“Utah State has a lot of guys who aren’t very well-known, but if you look at their numbers, they have some really, really talented guys,” Thybulle said. “... I think that us respecting the scout and just being aware of our coverages will help us a lot because they’ve got some firepower that just isn’t talked about much.”

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This is the second time Utah State and Washington have faced each other in the NCAA Tournament. The fifth-seeded Huskies beat the 12th-seeded Aggies, 75-61, in the first round of the tourney in 2006. The winner of Friday’s USU-Washington rematch will play the winner of the following contest between top-seeded North Carolina (27-6) and No. 16 seed Iona (17-15) on Sunday.

Aggies on the air

Washington (26-8) vs. Utah State (28-6)

  • Nationwide Arena — Columbus, Ohio Friday, 4:50 p.m. (MT)
  • TV: TNT
  • Radio: Aggie Radio Network 1280 AM