Craig Smith: USU’s Closure Was Talking On The Court After NCAA Tournament Was Canceled

Mar 19, 2020, 3:58 PM | Updated: Mar 23, 2020, 12:57 am

LOGAN, Utah – Utah State head coach Craig Smith was hoping to be leading his team into the NCAA Tournament to do some damage but due to the coronavirus or COVID-19 outbreak, the big dance was canceled.

The Aggies were sitting on the bubble when they started the Mountain West Conference Tournament in Las Vegas but sealed their second straight bid to the NCAA Tournament after Sam Merrill hit the game-winning three-pointer to upset No. 5 San Diego State in the conference championship game.

After the season came to an abrupt end, Smith thought his team was play their best basketball at the right time.

“It’s a long season with ups and downs,” Smith said. “We were peaking at the right time. We told our guys that we were just scratching the surface of how good we were going to become. So many things were going right.”

Getting Closure On The Season

Smith said that usually teams don’t get closure until they are either eliminated in a conference tournament or postseason tourney. But, only a small number of teams end the season with a win.

“I think you have closure at the end of the regular season,” said Smith. “We won it (conference tournament) and we had nine days off until the Selection Show, one of the greatest moments for a basketball player is to see your team name called on that board. We didn’t have to worry about whether our name would get called or not because we earned our right to be in that tournament.”

The Aggies had closure on their regular season after a disappointing loss to New Mexico but felt really good entering the conference tournament. When they won it all and then to not be able to play in the NCAA Tournament was disappointing.

“Now that we had closure on the regular season, we were ready to lock in to find a way to win one game six times,” stated Smith. “The hard part is that we felt like we didn’t have closure from the standpoint of normally you end the season on a loss unless you win one of the postseason tournaments.”

Players Getting Emotional In Meeting

After the tournament was canceled, the team was scheduled to practice at 3:15 but turned it into a meeting instead.

“[When your season is over] you bring all of the guys together about a week later for a banquet or a get-together,” Smith said. “The NCAA canceled the tournament at roughly 2:15 p.m. and we had practice scheduled for 3:15 p.m. Our closure was talking on the court.”

The hardest part for Smith in that meeting was seeing his players get emotional, especially players who he has never seen in an emotional state.

“I have never seen Sam Merrill emotional. I don’t think I have ever seen him shed a tear and I have coached him for nearly two years,” Smith said. “He has streams of emotions coming down. We get done talking and I look for Diogo Brito to give him (Merrill) a big hug but he sprinted up the hallway because he didn’t want the season to be over, he wasn’t ready for it.”

2019-20 Squad Was A Special Team

The expectations were very high for Utah State in the preseason and they didn’t live up to them until they cut down the nets in Las Vegas.

“One shining moment isn’t just a song for them, it’s a dream come true,” Smith stated. “Not many players get the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament and once you do that, you know how special it is. Our guys earned their right to do that. Then all of a sudden it is taken away. We all get it, we understand why it happened but it’s still a tough thing to go through.”

With the coronavirus forcing schools to move to online classes, Smith doesn’t know if his team will ever get together again.

“Now that schools are encouraging their students to go home, most of our players are gone,” said Smith. “There is not that closure and the finality of this team I am not sure will ever be together again until 10 or 15 years from now when hopefully they are inducted into the Hall of Fame or honored in some form or fashion.”

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Craig Smith: USU’s Closure Was Talking On The Court After NCAA Tournament Was Canceled