Sam Merrill said it best.
“Actually, my goal is to win an NCAA Tournament game,” Merrill said following Utah State’s 64-57 victory over San Diego State that earned the Aggies their first Mountain West title. “It’s been, what, 2002, 2001, something like that, almost 17 years since Utah State’s won a tournament game. So this was obviously — this is incredible. But I feel like we have a lot more left in the tank and we’re going to definitely try and show that wherever we end up this next weekend.”
We now know USU will be headed to Columbus, Ohio for the start of what could be a Cinderella run through the NCAA tournament. Considering that this team was initially picked to finish ninth in the MW and is now an eighth-seed in the NCAA tournament, it’s unwise to discount the possibility. This Utah State team has already proven it can achieve its goals, regardless of how far-fetched outside surveyors may deem those goals to be.
Still, the Aggies will face some of their stiffest competition of the season if they wish to advance beyond the first weekend of the tournament. USU’s opponent in the first round, the Washington Huskies, stumbled severely down the stretch of both the regular season and the PAC-12 tournament, but the Huskies are still capable of halting Utah State’s Cinderella run before it even starts. At 64.4 points allowed per game, Washington ranks 25th in the country in scoring defense and ranks 11th in the country in forcing turnovers, with opponents coughing up 16.2 turnovers per game. Even with Washington finishing the season only 3-4, the Husky defense still poses a formidable challenge for Utah State.
Washington’s defense starts with senior Matisse Thybulle. A potential draft pick in the upcoming NBA draft, Thybulle, despite standing at only 6-foot-5, averages 2.2 blocks per game. Even more impressive, Thybulle leads the nation in steals per game with 3.4. A 7-foot wingspan allows Thybulle to seemingly swallow opponents on the defensive end of the floor, and will likely be tasked with slowing Merrill. Already this season, Merrill has matched with some of the toughest defenders in the country and still managed to impact the game. The winner of Merrill versus Thybulle could ultimately decide who moves on to the second round.
It has been the Huskies’ offense which has led to their demise in recent weeks. In two games versus Oregon, including Saturday for the PAC-12 title, Washington managed only 47 and 48 points. Four of their seven worst shooting performances of the season have come in March. Sophomore Jaylen Nowell has led the Huskies all season in scoring, averaging 16.2 points per contest, but it may be the team’s second- and third-leading scorers, David Crisp and Noah Dickerson, at the root of Washington’s scoring troubles. Crisp has averaged 12.5 points on the season on 41.5 percent shooting, but has seen his numbers in March fall to only 11 points per game on 38.6 percent shooting. Dickerson’s dropoff has been even more pronounced. Through February, Dickerson averaged 12.5 points per game on an efficient 58.5 percent shooting. In March, however, Dickerson has averaged only 10.5 points per game on 43.8 percent shooting. Regardless of blame, the Huskies have averaged over five fewer points per game in March than for the rest of the season. If the Aggies are to advance to the second round, the defensive end may be USU’s key to do so.
And what a challenge would await them if they do. The North Carolina Tar Heels are 27-6 on the season, but four of those losses are to teams who earned a 1- or 2-seed in the tournament. Only a year removed from winning the national title, many of the players integral to that title team are still on the court for the Tar Heels, including senior Luke Maye, who was named to the All-American team last season and looks to be a deserving candidate again this year. Maye and the rest of the team field one of the nation’s most fearsome offensive juggernauts, ranking third in the country at 86.1 points per game. The Tar Heels do so by playing at a blistering pace, the fifth-fastest in the country at 78 possessions per game. For contrast, Utah State has averaged only 69.2 possessions per game since the start of February. Stamina will be at a premium should USU take on UNC.
Things are not entirely bleak for Utah State, however. The Aggies rank first in the country in defensive rebounding percentage, collecting an astounding 81.7 percent of opponent misses. USU also grabs 29.5 percent of their own missed shots on the offensive end. Both facets should reduce UNC’s abilities to jump into fast-break opportunities. USU also ranks ninth in the country at 17 assists per game. While UNC ranks second at 19 assists per game, the two schools vary in their ability to deter opponents from effectively sharing the ball. The Aggies rank 51st in the country, allowing only 11.4 assists per game. The Tar Heels, conversely, rank 261st in the nation with an allowed average of 14.2 assists per game. Utah State will need every ounce of offensive firepower to keep up with UNC, and the ability to spread that scoring burden across the entire roster will be crucial to the Aggies’ chances.
After securing the program’s first conference title since 2011, it’s dangerous to place any ceiling on this Utah State team. At 28-6, with a spot in the AP poll for the first time since 2011, the Aggies figure to be a tough out for anyone in the NCAA tournament. But above being just another tough out on someone else’s road to the Sweet Sixteen or further, USU has an opportunity to make a magical run themselves. In a few days, we’ll know if that slipper fits.