Utah State rolls into tourney opener vs. Washington

Utah State will make its 21st appearance in the NCAA Tournament on Friday night, but it will be entering uncharted territory on two fronts when it meets Washington in a first-round, Midwest Region contest in Columbus, Ohio.

The Aggies' No. 8 seed is their highest ever, and they also jumped into the polls Monday at 25th -- the first time they've been ranked since the 2010-11 season.

Not bad for a team that was picked ninth in the Mountain West Conference preseason poll, then won 17 of its last 18 games. That includes a 64-57 win Saturday over San Diego State for the MWC tourney championship.

"It makes you think how far these guys have come," Utah State coach Craig Smith said. "We could talk all day about that, but it is a sign of respect. I was a history major, so I see where we were, where we are, and where we're going."

History suggests the Aggies (28-6) might be a one-and-done. Their last win in the NCAA tourney occurred seven appearances and 18 years ago, when they dumped Ohio State 77-68 in overtime in a classic 12-5 seed upset.

But current form implies Utah State might get an extended stay in Ohio. Not only are the Aggies playing well, but they have drawn an opponent that hasn't played at its peak for weeks.

Washington (26-8) probably moved itself a seed or two down the line by going just 4-3 in its last seven games, starting with an inexplicable loss to the Pac-12's worst team, California. While the Huskies still captured the conference's regular-season title, a 55-47 defeat at home in the regular-season finale to Oregon presaged further trouble in the Pac-12 tourney championship game.

Given a second crack at the Ducks, Washington washed out in Las Vegas, making only 33.3 percent of its shots and eating a 68-48 defeat.

"We got the ball where we wanted to get it, and sometimes the ball just doesn't fall," Huskies coach Mike Hopkins said. "We tried to be aggressive and tried to get to the foul line. That didn't happen."

While the Aggies win with offense -- averaging 79.2 points per game and ranking 10th in Division I with 17.2 assists per game -- Washington's success comes mostly from defense. The Huskies average 69.8 points per game, but they have forced 99 more turnovers than they've committed and are second in Division I in blocked shots at 5.9 per game.

Jaylen Nowell leads Washington's attack with 16.2 points per game, while Matisse Thybulle has been a defensive whiz. The 6-foot-5 senior owns the conference's career steals record with 322 and is averaging 3.4 per game this year, along with 2.2 blocks.

Thybulle could match up with Utah State guard Sam Merrill, who makes the Aggies' offense click. The 6-5 Merrill averages 21.2 point and also doles out 4.2 assists. Merrill has averaged 27.2 points over the last five games, pumping in 24 against San Diego State.

The winner advances to a second-round matchup Sunday against either top-seeded North Carolina or 16th-seeded Iona.

--Field Level Media

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