The Utah State Aggies (23-6) have a huge rematch against #12 Nevada Wolfpack (26-2) this weekend with first place on the line in the Mountain West.
The Aggies were blow out by 23 points during their first meeting in Reno at the start of January. This time, they host the Nevada Wolfpack in Logan, Utah in front of 10,000 frantic Utah State fans. The Aggies are 13-1 at home this season at the Spectrum.
Nevada will be headed to March Madness no matter what happens in the upcoming Mountain West Conference tournament. The big question remains if Utah State has enough pedigree to earn an at-large big without winning the Mountain West tournament. A victory over #12 Nevada this weekend would certainly woo the selection committee.
Nevada is in first place in the Mountain West with a 13-2 conference record, while Utah State trails by a half-game at 13-3.
Utah State had three straight March Madness berths between 2009-11, but have not been back since then. They won only one game in March Madness since 1971, when they upset Ohio State in the first round in 2001. Utah State held the #12 seed that year and picked off #5 Ohio State in overtime.
Sam Merrill, a 6-foot-5 junior guard, leads Utah State in scoring with 20.2 points per game. Merrill is a homegrown player from Bountiful, Utah. Last season, he drilled 46.4percent of his three-pointers and averaged 16.3 points in his sophomore year.
This season, Merrill’s scoring has increased by four points, but his three-point shooting is off. He’s connecting on only 38.8 percent this season.
Most recently, Merrill dropped 32 points against Boise State and hit 5-for-11 from downtown. He scored 20-plus in 13 games this season and ventured north of 32 points at least three times.
Utah State is located in Logan, Utah, which is above sea level with a 4,770 feet elevation. The Aggies play their games at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum which holds only 10,200 people, but they have one of the largest student sections in the country. The super-rowdy crowd is renown as Utah State’s “Sixth Man”, which gives them an added advantage at home.
Opposing teams never want to hear the “Winning Team, Losing Team” taunts that occur at the end of a game when the Aggies locked up a victory. The Utah State crowd has a slew of other chants, like the “I Believe We Will Win”, that make the game feel and sound more like a fierce European football matchup.
“We feel so comfortable at home,” said Merrill. “We feel something extra there. Something special there. When the students come out in full force, I can feel how daunting it is on other teams.”
Utah State is 13-1 playing at the Spectrum this season. Their sole home lost is against Arizona State.
Head Coach Craig Smith is 22-6 in his first season with the Aggies. Over the previous four seasons, Smith helped turn around South Dakota’s squad in the Summit League.
The Aggies tapped him last year to coach Utah State after they dismissed Tim Duryea after three lackluster seasons in Logan. Duryea went 47-49 during a dark period in which the Aggies were no better than seventh place in the Mountain West.
And yes, the rumors are true. Over 300 pounds of free bacon are up for grabs to the first 1,500 fans to arrive for this weekend’s game against Nevada.
According to a tweet from Utah State’s official hoops account, “We will be handing out 300 pounds of FREE BACON Saturday night courtesy of Utah Pork Producers behind Section L.”
Students started camping out on Thursday night to secure a sweet spot in the notorious student section for Saturday’s game. The early birds also include a few bacon enthusiasts as well.
The Mountain West might be better that the Pac-12 these days. Washington is the only decent team from the old-school conference that looks more like an aging actress a couple of decades past their prime. The Mountain West, particularly Utah State, is the budding starlet on the scene.
The Montana Grizzlies out of the Big Sky are a relative unknown team out West that you should keep an eye on. South Dakota State and their scoring machine Mike Daum will be a tough battle in March Madness. The WAC’s New Mexico State is another squad that could pull off an upset in March Madness, especially if the selection committee awards them with a #12 seed.