Tony Dejak, AP
The Utah State bench watches in the final minutes against Washington in the second half during a first round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, March 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The team no one figured to be anywhere near a contender in the Mountain West during the 2018-19 season was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament much quicker than almost anyone figured.

That makes it understandable that there were a lot of long stares off into nowhere during the press conference following Utah State’s 78-61 loss to Washington Friday night at Nationwide Arena.

During the time that USU head coach Craig Smith and guards Sam Merrill and Brock Miller were sitting at the podium, you could practically see the epic collision between their disappointment at losing to the Huskies and the realization that one very special — and entirely unexpected — season was now complete.

“I loved coaching these guys,” Smith declared, three days short of the one-year anniversary of the date he was hired away from South Dakota to take over the program at Utah State. “I’ve been a part of a lot of rebuilding, so to speak, where you’re doing some things for the first time, and I have never seen a team come together like this team has."

Smith added that when he first had a chance to practice with his new team in late spring and early summer, “We couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean, and we were throwing the ball in the third row of the Spectrum on a regular basis.

"I’m not kidding. That’s factual. And how far this team has come and just ... I wish, like, I just wish every coach could coach a team like this,” Smith added, his voice cracking with emotion. “It’s just an amazing, amazing group to be around.”

The Aggies were certainly not viewed as an “amazing group” coming into the season. After going 17-17 last season, Tim Duryea was fired after three so-so seasons as the replacement for the legendary Stew Morrill. It also didn’t help that standout guard Koby McEwen elected to transfer out of the program, leaving Merrill and a nice — but primarily unspectacular — group of players around him.

That led to the media covering the Mountain West to predict a ninth-place finish for the Aggies in 2018-19, certainly not an unrealistic selection considering that Utah State had ended up tied for seventh last year.

But what was expected to be the first year of a rebuilding process got fast-tracked in a hurry, seemingly from the Aggies’ 101-71 blowout victory at Montana State in their season opener.

What no one accounted for prior to the start of the season was the stunning emergence of freshman center Neemias Queta, who went from being a 6-foot-11 unknown from Portugal to arguably the greatest rim protector in the history of USU basketball. In addition, Merrill took on a more vocal role as a leader while also taking over a greater share of the scoring, including a 37-point performance in Bozeman.

On their way to going 28-7 — the most victories by a Utah State team since the 2010-11 team won 30 games — the Aggies stayed remarkably healthy, although they had to battle their way through flu issues a couple of times, and Smith had to deal with very little drama.

The loss of John Knight III to academic issues could have been devastating, inasmuch as he figured to end up as the starting point guard. But Abel Porter was plugged into the starting spot in mid-January, freshman Justin Bean started to get more playing time off the bench and the Aggies never looked back.

Utah State tied Nevada for the Mountain West regular-season title at 15-3, then went on to win the postseason tourney in Las Vegas. Merrill, who had an incredible stretch run, ended up as the MW Player of the Year, while Queta was honored as both Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year for a team that didn’t lose back-to-back games all season long.

But after winning 17 of 18 games and blessed with the highest seed in school history heading into the NCAA Tournament, the eighth-seeded Aggies couldn’t capitalize in Columbus as the zone defense of the ninth-seeded Huskies (27-8) kept USU off balance nearly all night long.

Despite all the magic the Aggies displayed during the season, the Utah State basketball program still hasn’t won a game in the NCAA Tournament since 2001.

“I think there’s a healthy balance of being proud of what we accomplished and also sitting here after a loss,” Porter said in the locker room after the game. “So, when you kind of find that balance and never satisfied with the outcome, I think we’re going to have a great roster and be ready for next year.”

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The loss to the Huskies was the final game as Aggies for senior forwards Quinn Taylor and Dwayne Brown Jr., but the rest of the team should be back in 2019-20, assuming that Smith doesn’t get enticed away by a larger program and Queta doesn’t elect to forgo the remainder of his college eligibility to go pro.

But following the loss, Queta did suggest that he would be back for another run with the group Smith referred to as a “band of brothers.”

“This whole season was really special,” Queta proclaimed. “It was hard, but we put in a lot of hard work. The sky is the limit for us. We are going to keep on working, and hopefully next year we will be back again.”