UTAH STATE AGGIES

Utah State Begins Defense Of MWC Tournament Title Against New Mexico

Mar 4, 2020, 8:14 PM | Updated: 8:16 pm
Utah State Aggies guard Sam Merrill (5) goes to the hoop during the Mountain West Conference finals...
Utah State Aggies guard Sam Merrill (5) goes to the hoop during the Mountain West Conference finals against the San Diego State Aztecs at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on Saturday, March 16, 2019. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)
(Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

LAS VEGAS, Nevada – Utah State closed out the regular season with a tough setback against New Mexico in The Pit. It was a Quadrant Three loss on the Aggies’ NCAA Tournament resume that Craig Smith’s team couldn’t afford to have.

But now Utah State opens up the Mountain West Conference Tournament with a chance to defend their tournament title from a season ago and even the score against that same Lobos squad in the MWC Quarterfinals on Thursday night (7 p.m., CBS Sports Network). The Aggies haven’t won back-to-back conference titles in 19 years.

To get to this point, New Mexico defeated San Jose State in the opening round of the MWC Tournament on Wednesday by a score of 79-66. The Lobos are now winners of their last two games after dropping eight of their previous nine games.

For Utah State head coach Craig Smith who’s always got a ton of excitement, he’s ready to see his guys back on the floor in this tournament setting.

“It’s an exciting time of the year. Certainly, March Madness is upon us and there’s a lot of adrenaline, a lot of enthusiasm, certainly with our team but I would say the same for all 11 teams that are here,” said Smith. “Everybody is 0-0 and everybody’s chasing an opportunity of a lifetime and that’s to play in March Madness.”

In Joe Lunardi’s latest ESPN Bracketology, the Aggies currently sit as the first team within the “First Four Out,” grouping. The pressure or magnitude of Thursday’s Quarterfinal is something the Aggies aren’t shying away from.

“We don’t curb any adrenaline or enthusiasm,” Smith said. “I believe that’s a big part of the whole feeling [of March Madness]. A lot of these guys have dreamed for 18 to 24 years of playing in a conference tournament to get to the ultimate goal and that’s to play in the NCAA Tournament. But not only to get to the NCAA Tournament but win when you get there. So, I think that’s a big part of the college experience is that you learn about yourself through your feelings, through your emotions and you learn how to channel that, you learn how to handle that.

“Certainly, specifically with our team we do have nine newcomers but we do have six guys that went down that path last year, where nobody expected anything from us and we were able to win the Mountain West regular-season title and the conference tournament and play in the NCAA Tournament. Sometimes you have to pinch yourself because it’s like, wow, we really get to do this and it’s an exciting time.”

New Mexico head coach Paul Weir knows that they will need to make adjustments from their game plan if they want to pull off a second upset against Utah State.

“Obviously they’ve had a lot of time to prepare. We haven’t. All we’ve spent time on preparing for was San Jose State,” Weir said. “I’m assuming they’ve obviously been kind of working towards this a little bit. So they might have an advantage that way, but that’s why they have the higher seed and they earned that right.

“We have to now get back to the hotel and get back to it and put the best game plan we can to try and give ourselves the best chance to win.”

Utah State – New Mexico Game Preview

In last week’s upset in The Pit, turnovers played a big role in New Mexico knocking off Utah State to close out the regular season. That will be an area of focus on Thursday night for Neemias Queta.

“I think that we just have to take better care of the ball and not have as many turnovers as we did, especially me. I think we need to improve in that and I think we will be in the right places to do that,” said Queta.

If the Aggies take care of the ball, they should be in a good spot to win a game that they have a 78 percent chance of winning according to Ken Pomeroy. Especially with the size advantage in the frontcourt. With Queta at center and 6-7 forward Justin Bean alongside him, Utah State was plus-10 in rebound margin last week in Albuquerque but turnovers sunk them.

New Mexico is led by junior guard/forward Vance Jackson who is going by “Vegas Vance” here at the tournament. Jackson poured in 26 points and pulled down 12 rebounds in Wednesday’s win over San Jose State.

No. 2 Utah State vs. No. 7 New Mexico

Mountain West Conference Tournament Quarterfinals

Tip: 7 p.m. (MT)

TV: CBS Sports Network

Radio: 1280 AM

Follow KSL Sports coverage from the Mountain West Conference Tournament on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

 

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