AP
Washington's David Crisp (1) and Utah State's Sam Merrill (5) battle for the ball in the first half during a first round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, March 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — When talking earlier in the week about trying to replicate Washington’s 2-3 zone defense during practice, Utah State head coach Craig Smith joked that maybe he should have broke out “some of those swimming pool noodles.”

Smith meant that might have helped the Aggies’ scout team better simulate the Huskies’ length and athleticism, but halfway through the first half of Friday’s 78-61 loss in the NCAA Tournament, the Aggies might have wanted to use them as a flotation device after being swamped by UW’s zone.

“It’s hard to replicate a zone like that, and length like that,” USU forward Quinn Taylor said. “In the Mountain West, hardly anyone plays zone, and they’re a great team that forced a lot of turnovers because it was kind of an adjustment playing a zone like that.”

After more than two decades as an assistant under Jim Boeheim, Washington head coach Mike Hopkins brought the Syracuse zone to Seattle when he was hired two years ago. And led by 6-foot-5 senior forward Matisse Thybulle, who broke Gary Payton’s Pac-12 career steals record last week, Hopkins clearly has the right personnel to make that zone work.

Although he was somewhat limited by foul trouble, Thybulle still ended up with five steals — a significant chunk of USU’s not-so-insignificant 21 turnovers.

“(Thybulle) disrupts offensive rhythm,” Hopkins said. “You got to think about him everywhere when he’s on the court; he’s blocking, he’s stealing. I think he’s the national defensive player of the year. And when he’s on the court, there’s a different air of confidence with our defense.”

SAM SLAMMED: Although Utah State ended up with four players in double figures, the leading scorer was Brock Miller with 13 points — the fewest points by an Aggie top scorer this season.

Sam Merrill had led USU in scoring in the past seven straight games and 15 of the past 16 games, but the junior guard struggled to find any space to maneuver on Friday, which led to him knocking down just 2 of 9 shot attempts on his way to 10 points. The only game Merrill scored fewer points in was USU’s loss to Houston on Dec. 20.

“First off, Sam is a really good player,” UW guard Jaylen Nowell said. “We just made sure that wherever he was, we had everyone know where he is. We were talking. Every time he made a back-door cut, we made sure we knew exactly where he was. That’s kind of how we were able to hold him to 10 points.”

In addition to finding it difficult to shoot from the perimeter, Merrill was also unable to drive to the basket with any regularity. While he went 4 for 4 from the free-throw line, he had been averaging nearly nine free throws per game during the Aggies’ stretch run and the Mountain West tournament.

1 comment on this story

U-DUB DUPLICATE: Although the Aggies were the higher-seeded team this time around, the outcome of Friday’s contest was rather similar to the last time Utah State and Washington faced each other in the NCAA Tournament on St. Patrick’s Day 2006.

While the ninth-seeded Huskies put eighth-seeded USU on ice by a 78-61 margin at the home of the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets, 13 years ago the fifth-seeded Washington upended the 12th-seeded Aggies in San Diego by a 75-61 score. In that game, the Stew Morrill-coached Aggies trailed by nine points at halftime and were outscored by five in the second half; Friday night, USU was down by 12 at intermission and was outscored by five points over the final 20 minutes.