Utah State is this year’s first official NCAA tournament team. The Aggies won the Mountain West Conference tournament on Saturday, upsetting top-seeded San Diego State 59-56 in thrilling fashion, to secure the nation’s first automatic bid to March Madness.
Utah State’s Sam Merrill drilled a game-winning 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds remaining to help his team pull off the upset in Las Vegas.
“Utah State hasn’t won a tournament game since 2001,” Merrill said in an interview after the game. “This is our time, and (winning in the NCAA tourney) is what we’re gonna do.”
Utah State (26-8, 43 NET) entered the contest as a bubble team with a 50/50 shot of hearing its name called on Selection Sunday. Instead of an anxiety-filled week, the Aggies secured their inclusion by beating a team that was in the mix for a No. 1 seed. SDSU, the last unbeaten team in college basketball before its first loss to UNLV two weeks ago, now will likely fall to the No. 2 seed line with its latest loss.
Utah State’s win likely will push other bubble teams out of contention, making the Aggies a dreaded bid thief. What’s more: Utah State very well could be a mid-major Cinderella in this year’s tournament, likely earning a No. 11 or No. 12 seed when all the teams are announced next Sunday. That’s right around the seeding line where bracket-busting upsets are plentiful against vulnerable No. 5 or No. 6 seeds (No. 12 seeds have won first-round games in 30 of the last 35 tournaments).
“We had a rough stretch in January, but we didn’t flinch,” Utah State coach Craig Smith said after the game, referencing a stretch where the Aggies lost four of five to start the month. “We got our dancing shoes on.”
Behind senior standout Merrill (27 points vs. No. 5 SDSU on Saturday and at 19.4 ppg on the season), this USU team can be very dangerous in March Madness. Utah State is equally solid on both ends of the floor, ranking in the top-10 in scoring margin and assists, while also containing teams with top-25 field-goal percentage defense.
Merrill had six 3-pointers on Saturday and can fill it up from beyond the arc (he had 83 points in three MWC tourney games). While San Diego State hogged the spotlight in the Mountain West for most of 2019-20, Merrill and the Aggies have a chance to make a name for themselves now in the NCAAs.