USU finds itself in a familiar position

March, 3, 2010
Utah State coach Stew Morrill is in the same predicament as he was a year ago.

The Aggies are atop the WAC, have a long winning streak and have the numbers to be a given on Selection Sunday -- but are once again in an angst-ridden state, unsure about how safe they are heading into the conference tournament.

Last season, Utah State won 30 games, was 14-2 in the league and yet still had to win the conference tournament to feel like a bid was available to it.

The same is true again. Utah State has won 23 games this time, heads into a final regular-season game against New Mexico State with a one-game lead in the loss column in the standings and a win over BYU at home to shout about. If Saint Mary's screams about a marquee win on the road at Utah State -- which it should -- then why wouldn't the Aggies be in as well if the Gaels are projected as an at-large? Utah State has an RPI of 32 and six wins against the top 100.

Yet Morrill has been doing this for too long to take anything for granted. He knows the Aggies are being tossed aside as a possible at-large, nothing more.

"I'm telling our team the same thing I told them last year, 'We're not in. If you want to be in you have to go and win the conference tournament,'" Morrill said of next week's WAC tournament in Reno, Nev. "That's a lot of pressure. Two weeks ago, the discussion was that Utah State was back on the bubble and what they need to do is win out. Well, thanks a lot. All we have to do is win every game? That's kind of tough. Yeah, just win every game."

Well, Utah State has come close. After an 0-2 start in the league with losses at New Mexico State and Louisiana Tech, the Aggies have won 13 straight games heading into the finale with NMSU.

"I told the team, 'Don't fret and go finalize,'" Morrill said. "Those are the two 'F' words I'm using. I could use one more, but I'm using don't fret and go finalize."

The Aggies of 2010 are a better defensive lot than a year ago, according to Morrill. They don't have a big-time scorer like Gary Wilkinson, who was instrumental in getting USU to that 30-win mark. The Aggies were a possession away from upsetting Marquette in the first round last season. But even with all of their power-rating résumé, they still only received an 11-seed.

"Here's what is frustrating, a year ago we won 19 straight and we lost a couple down the stretch and were 14-2 going into the tournament," Morrill said. "But then it was we had to win a game in the conference tournament. Then it was we had to win two. And then it was we weren't in unless we won the tournament. Which is it?"

The WAC checks in at No. 10 on the power-rating scale, behind the Atlantic 10, Mountain West, Pac-10 and Missouri Valley. If the Aggies were to win the conference outright, should they be treated the same as Northern Iowa, the regular-season champ out of the Valley and a projected at-large team? What about Cal out of the Pac-10?

The difference, of course, is that Utah State didn't play as many high-majors as those two schools. The ongoing constructive criticism with the Aggies is their nonconference schedule. They can't do anything about the league. Utah State did go to Northeastern for a true road game and lost in November. Beating Wichita State in BracketBusters helped a little, but the Aggies didn't play any high-major teams outside the MWC (beat BYU, lost at Utah).

Morrill has always had a policy that he's not doing one-way games and it's true that teams from the power six aren't going to play a true road game in Logan. But Utah State could always aggressively try to be in a higher-profile tournament early in the season.

But that's an ongoing argument. For now the question is how do the Aggies pass the numbers and eye test? If they win the WAC regular season outright, does it matter what happens in the conference tournament? Morrill certainly believes it does.

"I told our team that the RPI and Bracketology stuff is fun to look at -- I like looking at it," Morrill said. "But you better not count on anything."

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer




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