Everything Utah State Coach Craig Smith Said After NCAA Loss To Texas Tech

Mar 19, 2021, 3:09 PM | Updated: 4:35 pm
Craig Smith - Utah State - NCAA Tournament...
BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA - MARCH 19: Head coach Craig Smith of the Utah State Aggies reacts against the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the first round game of the 2021 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Assembly Hall on March 19, 2021 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

BLOOMINGTON, Indiana – Utah State dropped its eighth consecutive first-round NCAA Tournament game in a loss to Texas Tech, 65-53. Turnovers sunk the Aggies chances of pulling off a 6-11 upset in the first round and busting everyone’s brackets.

Now the Aggies will head into the offseason with a roster that could potentially all return for the 2021-22 season. The one everyone will be watching for is Utah State center Neemias Queta, who Texas Tech coach Chris Beard consistently acknowledged as a future pro.

Utah State had a 31-26 lead early in the second half then everything fell apart. The head coach of Utah State, Craig Smith, took the podium to speak to the media after falling to the Red Raiders.

Craig Smith: Turnovers were Achilles heel for Utah State

CRAIG SMITH: Congratulations to Texas Tech. They played great. They earned it. You know, they really swarmed us. They’re an elite defensive team and we knew that coming in. The turnover battle was going to be a big thing. The two things that we really thought, valuing the ball, being ball tough, being able to make quick decisions, you have to do that at a high level to get good shots against these guys and to eliminate losing. One of the pieces of eliminating losing is taking care of the ball.

You know, tonight obviously that was our Achilles heel. We had too many turnovers, 22. They force 16 turnovers a game on average, so that’s an incredible number for any team to do that. We’ve got some rookies back there. We have two true freshmen in Rollie Worster and Steven Ashworth, and that’s been a bit of an issue for us this year with some inexperience in our backcourt and Marco Anthony.

I thought we did a great job in every other facet. I thought we really defended hard and well. I thought we really made them earn everything, maybe with the exception, we got a 6-point lead with about 16:47 to go and then they go score on 11 of the next 12 possessions, and that hurts you.

But we rebounded well. We got to the foul line more than them. We were only five for ten from the foul line.

They’re a team that gets fouled — shoots 23 free throws a game and makes 16, which is one of the top — I believe they’re top 10 in the country in getting to the foul line, and we hold them to eight free-throw attempts, and they go six for eight and most of those were at the end when we were fouling on purpose. So we played hard without fouling, made life difficult on them. They got a little bit loose on us in transition in that second half, and we just didn’t have enough to finish it off.

Really proud of our team, this team. Most coaches are going to say this when you get to this point, but the things this team has went through, seven true freshmen, seven freshmen, eight new guys in our program that never played a minute for the Aggies, and starting out 1-3 didn’t have a home game for 42 days in late January, through February, one game in 21 days, three games in 30 days, these guys overcame a lot, really stood together and just grew as a team and grew as men and grew as leaders.

I’ve been doing this for 25 years. I’m not sure I’ve ever been a part — I’ve been a part of really, really good teams at every stop, and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a team grow on the floor, off the floor, from young men to men, from underclassmen to true leaders in a program, and great teams are run by the players, and we certainly have that. It’s disappointing we lost, no question. There’s only one team that’s not disappointed at the end of the year, and that’s the national champion.

We’ll learn from it. We only have two seniors in our program, and there’s no doubt these guys will be back on the floor because we have a bunch of gym rats that love to play and love to compete.

Utah State/Texas Tech: Comes down to a shot-making game

Q. First half you have 13 turnovers but still find yourselves ahead at halftime, so you had to feel good about that first half despite what you did turning the ball over.

Smith: Well, you’re right. We had 13. It felt like 20. I did a halftime interview and they said 13, and honestly, I thought it was more than that. I thought we got — like we had our shot, we had clean looks, and I felt like most of the night we had clean looks. It’s just we kept turning it over. Like I said, that’s what they do. They’re big, long, they’re athletic, except for at the 5 spot, and they cover a lot of ground and they clearly just swarm you.

You talk about it and you prepare for it, but it’s another thing to do it. We use their momentum against them, as well, quite a bit. The hard part was I thought — I felt like we had more clean looks from the three tonight than we have all year except honestly it kind of reminded me of our first UNLV game where we had clean look after clean look after clean look, they just wouldn’t fall in the first half. I don’t know exactly what we were from the three, one for eight, and I mean, wide-open looks. Brock had some wide-open ones, Fonz, Rollie, Marco is the guy that made the one. And in the second half, as well, I thought we had some really good looks at it, and we weren’t able to capitalize.

One of the keys was certainly, like we talked about, the turnover battle, playing hard without fouling, and then of course rebounding, and we did a great job on the glass. They’re a team that gets 36 percent of their missed shots. I thought we did a great job that way and we made them pay on the offensive glass, and then the last part was we’ve got to finish plays. We’ve got to finish possessions, we’ve got to be able to finish some plays, whether that’s an open three or shots at the rim.

You know, you made a couple of those, a couple more of those, it certainly gives the game a different look. Basketball sometimes comes down to a shot-making game. When you can make those, the game changes and becomes a lot simpler real fast.

What Craig Smith will be looking at going forward for Utah State

Q. You mentioned getting a lot of clean looks but just missing a lot of them. I’m kind of wondering what types of things were generating the clean looks, and in terms of going forward, how do you kind of address just — I feel like missing some open shots has been a little bit of an issue all season depending on the game and opponent, but how do you address that moving forward?

CRAIG SMITH: We’ll look at everything. You look at your personnel. You look at your coaching and what you’re teaching, and are we doing the right things in practice. And you look at your scheme. And do we need to change some of our things with our scheme.

We’ll sit down and look at all those types of things. What was generating them? I thought transition, I thought getting it to Neemi — Neemi ends up with six assists and five turnovers. He only gets eight shots, and part of that is us not getting it to him enough, and then part of it is basically he’s getting a double- and triple-team, I mean, essentially every possession. They’re just loading to him in a major way.

That makes it difficult, and they’re playing on the high side a lot, and we’ve got to — the guy with the toughest job on offense is the passer, so he’s got to be able to make some split decisions and deliver the time on time and on target and in the right place where he can be effective.

But it’s a little bit of everything. Early on we were down 5-0 and then I think we enter up 10-0 and Neemi was getting some touches where it created some easy points for us. But we’ll look at all that stuff and evaluate it and go from there.

Neemias Queta is one of only a few men in the world who can do what he did against Texas Tech

Q. You touched on Neemi’s day, but that’s pretty impressive what he was able to put together. How much of that is something that he can build on moving forward?

CRAIG SMITH: Neemi is a phenomenal player, a tremendous person. Not many centers you roll out there for 39 minutes, and that’s not necessarily fair to him, but he’s earned that. He’s just playing at such an elite level. He ends the game with 11 points, 13 boards, six assists, and seven blocked shots, and not many guys in the world, college basketball, NBA, pro basketball, in the world can do something like that.

We lean on him heavy. He’s a star player, and your star players have to deliver when the — especially when the pressure is on, and he did. And he’s done that all year. He’s taken the onus upon himself and the guys believe in him to do that and be ready to go.

He’s always been a guy that loves to play, but he’s taking his game — not only his game on the floor but his mentality and the way he approaches the game, his level of consistency. We know exactly what we’re going to get out of Neemi every day, in practice, in walk-through, on the game floor, in March Madness. He’s been a huge anchor to our program, going to three straight NCAA Tournaments, obviously, his accolades speak for themselves. But that dude gets beat up. He takes a pounding every night.

You’re defending against big strong physical guys, got to guard screen-and-roll. We always tell the guards — I love giving the guards a hard time. They’ve got to run three-point line to three-point line, screen and guard the ball, big guys get the crap knocked out of them in the post, whether it’s post defense or sealing a guy and they’ve got their thigh up their you-know-what trying to push them out of the block, three quarter fronting, loading to them, double-teams. He’s out there setting screens on ball screens, rolling hard. You’ve got to do it all. That’s what great big guys do. That’s what front court players got to do, 4s and 5s. It’s a physical, rugged game.

His evolution, getting up to 250 pounds now has been tremendous, and he’s come a long, long way. The sky’s the limit for that kid. Because he’s got the mentality, he’s got the desire and certainly, he’s got the instincts and feel to do it. We see it all the time, and we’ve seen it to a different level this year.

After taking a 31-26 lead, Tech rolled in transition

Q. The turnovers and the part of the game that really killed you when they finally got those transition deals out of you right there in that 24-4 run absolutely.

CRAIG SMITH: No question. We did such a good job eliminating their transition game, and they’re not elite in transition, but 1 through 5 they are more athletic than us, they’re faster than us, they have some highlight-reel plays. Most of their transition comes off creating turnovers. Listen, when you force 16 turnovers a game in the Big 12 when you do that, and they score 17 points a game off of turnovers, so that’s a big chunk of their offense.

So it’s a double whammy, right? You’re creating — they’re creating catastrophic turnovers which feed roughly a third of their offense, and not only that, we’re not getting — their opponents aren’t getting shots up, and so it’s the double whammy.

This year has been a bit of a challenge with that for a multitude of reasons. The last four years that’s been one of the reasons for our success, the last two years at South Dakota and our first two years here is we did not turn the ball over. Consistently we were a low-turnover team.

So when I said earlier, what is it, some of it has to be scheme, but a lot of its just youth and inexperience in that backcourt and those guys will grow in time. They’ll develop that. We’ll get better at that. Bean is kind of a developing player from that respect, playing more on the perimeter as a whole. But this is what they do, and we knew that was going to be a monster key.

Like I said, there were some that were unforced, some we thought it was there and it wasn’t. They kind of baited us into it, but then I thought we used their momentum against them, too, at a high rate at times, where sometimes we made them pay and others we didn’t.

The bottom line is you play these guys, you’ve got to make some threes. It’s just like playing us. We’re different than them, but generally speaking, if you’re going to beat the Aggies, you’re going to have to make some threes because as a whole we don’t foul, we own the paint, like we’re really good defending the 2, and we make teams beat us to beat us.

Unfortunately, when we had those great opportunities at times, we just didn’t — we didn’t make them pay specifically from the three.

Follow Mitch Harper and his NCAA Tournament 2021 coverage from Indianapolis with BYU and Utah State by following KSL Sports on InstagramTwitterFacebook, and the KSL Sports app. For more on Utah State, download The Scotsman podcast.

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