USU to face off against UW’s top-flight defense
Craig Smith told us a year ago he once punched a snake and now here we are
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Best case for Utah State? Make this game a shootout
Utah State’s dream season continues tonight in Columbus, as the Aggies take on the University of Washington for the sacred right to continue bashing the miserable Pac-12 Conference. The stakes could not be higher.
In all seriousness, Craig Smith and his squad have outpaced every expectation this season, locking up every major award, rejecting every challenger and returning to what always made the Spectrum magic in Cache Valley special — winning basketball games.
Now in the position of the No. 8 seed, the Aggies must go through the Washington Huskies to earn their first tournament win in 18 years. Here’s how they’ll do it.
Key 1: Let your stars loose
Utah State won’t be the only team in this contest showcasing a conference POY and DPOY. Matisse Thybulle is defensive wizard, and Jaylen Nowell is essentially the Huskies’ Nega-Sam Merrill. Both these guys are capable of catching an over-excited Aggie team off-guard if USU is undisciplined with the ball, and Merrill will likely need to continue his iron man streak of minutes played to contain Nowell, the evil twin version of himself.
Maybe it’s a cop-out to make Merrill and Queta’s talent a key to winning this game, but it’s impossible to ignore the pair’s impact on both ends of the floor. Queta in particular has appeared matchup-proof and immune to all intimidation this season, and Washington is sure to hound Merrill as they have all season against their opponents’ best scorer. In a game like this where both teams are likely to tighten up under the initial pressure of the tournament, having Queta swat shots into the third row and provide a little nastiness could inspire his teammates to loosen up and play with confidence.
Expect Merrill to drive early to establish an offensive rhythm, and for Queta to introduce himself to the national spotlight.
Key 2: Win any way you can, but with rebounds
Craig Smith’s team has enjoyed a full season of consistency from a wins standpoint — the Aggies haven’t lost back-to-back games all year — but that doesn’t mean it always happens in the same way. The MW tournament alone featured USU prevailing in an ugly grind-it-out win against New Mexico, the supersonic annihilation of Fresno and a championship victory over San Diego State full of seismic momentum shifts and clutch foul shooting.
The common thread binding all of Utah State’s successes this year is rebounding. The Aggies are 27-4 this season when out-rebounding opponents, and against a hungry Huskies team looking for redemption after a Pac-12 championship collapse it’s likely every loose ball and missed shot this game will be a battle.
Key 3: No, it isn’t 3-point shooting; it’s staying out of foul trouble
This will likely be a fairly ugly game offensively, as Utah State’s only two road games against top-50 defenses produced the Aggies’ lowest scoring outputs of the season (50 and 49 points). No offense in the country wants any part of facing Thybulle’s lockdown defense for 40 minutes, but it’s possible the Aggies won’t have to. Just as early fouls on Queta have changed the landscape of several games for Utah State this season, UW’s foul-prone two-time DPOY is key to everything the Huskies want to do on defense.
Without Thybulle, the Aggies can turn the game into a shootout the Huskies will almost definitely lose. When Washington is forced to lean on its offense for support (see also: Pac-12 title game) it generally crumbles. The muddier this game gets, the better chance UW has to suffocate Utah State’s motion-heavy, drive-and-dish offense and escape with a win. The Aggies still need to respect UW’s perimeter shooting on the off-chance guys like David Crisp and Dominic Green heat up, but an offensive duel favors Utah State even if UW hits the occasional three.
That’s not a shot at the Huskies — their style has gotten them this far already, and USU isn’t guaranteed to keep rolling despite winning 17 of its last 18. The tournament is a different animal, and tonight’s contest could realistically tilt either way — the edge will go to whichever defensive anchor can stay on the court.