The Dawgs are back in the tournament for the first time since Moses parted the Red Sea or something like that. Their Thursday opponent is the reigning (surprise?) MWC champion Utah State Aggies, an opponent UW has not faced this year. To learn a little more about our upcoming opponent, we checked in with the Mountain West Connection and Utah State expert Alex Eiden. Below is the full text of our Q&A.
1. The Aggies come into the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the nation having won 10 straight and 17 of their last 18 games. What has been the secret of their success this season?
The Aggies find their success with a mix of both team and individual effort. Led by Sam Merrill and Neemias Queta, the Aggies have a great flow going. I’m a big believer in team chemistry as role player in a team being successful, and this group has lots of it. Anyone who says that isn’t a factor in winning is plain wrong.
2. Building on that, what are the unique strengths of this Aggie team and what kind of style will they seek to impose on their opponent(s) in the tournament?
Rebounding, mainly from Queta, has been a major strength for this team. Nationally, they’re ranked 3rd in defensive rebounds, 9th in total rebounds, and 1st in defensive rebounding percentage.
The playmaking ability of guys like Sam Merrill and Abel Porter, who lead the team in assists per game with 4.2 and 2.7 respectively, have created the offense that was second in PPG in the Mountain West behind only Nevada.
As far as what style they’ll look to impose: Look for the Aggies to box out with their big bodies and to consistently move the ball and create open space for Merrill to splash threes. They don’t guard the three well, but guard 2-point field goals at an elite level. They keep teams outside the arc, increasing the chance for misses and defensive rebounds.
3. Just like Washington with PAC 12 POY Jaylen Nowell and Matisse Thybulle, Utah State produced both the MWC POY and DPOY with guard Sam Merrill and center Neemias Queta. Tell us a little about each of these players and what makes them special.
Sam Merrill is the first name you’ll hear out of just about anyone’s mouth when they talk about Utah State and the year they’ve had. He’s the team’s scoring and assist leader and is the face of the Aggies. He can drop 30 points in any given night and is dynamic at the rim as well.
Queta is the lifeblood of the Aggies defense. Without him, they don’t win as many games as they have. Leading the team in most defensive statistics, he’s a stonewall on the court.
4. Coach Craig Smith, like UW’s Mike Hopkins in the PAC, is this year’s conference coach of the year. Other than the fact that he is from the state of Minnesota and has a son named Landon - two factoids that automatically make him a winner in my book - what more can you tell us about Smith’s coaching chops and his approach to developing the program?
He’s a charismatic ball of energy, and that’s something a program like Utah State needed. They seemed to be stuck in the metaphorical mud. They hadn’t been to the tournament since 2010-11 and were coming off of five straight sub-20 win seasons. They hired Smith away from South Dakota, where he showed promise, taking a .500 team and winning a conference title with them.
I’ve mentioned the chemistry, and I will again, because that’s what Coach Smith is great at bringing to a program. He’s fun, exuberant, and cares about his players. He wears his heart on his sleeve. The players want to play and play well for him.
5. About that incident in the hallway to the locker room after the Nevada upset ...
Bold of you to call that an upset. All I know is that there was heated words causing some fiery emotions and somebody didn’t read the fire extinguisher instructions correctly.
editor’s note: in case you missed it, below is a tweet capturing part of the incident:
6. Do our friends at the MWC have a prediction on the outcome of this compelling 8 vs 9 seed matchup on Thursday?
Utah State 76, Washington 72. Winner gets to play a really scary UNC team so ... lucky them!