Utah State seeks to break first-round jinx
Associated Press Writer
SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) – Utah State has an NCAA tournament pedigree dating to the first championships in 1939, but little success in the event.
Texas A&M has become a fixture only in the past five years, but has reached at least the second round every time.
Two teams, both nicknamed the Aggies, with vastly different histories will meet Friday when fifth-seeded Texas A&M (23-9) plays 12th-seeded Utah State (27-7) in the first round of the South Regional.
“To win some games would be a blast and put Utah State on the map a little bit – and show how good a basketball program we can be,” Tyler Newbold said.
Utah State has lost its past four first-round games in the NCAAs, in 2009, 2006, 2005 and 2003. Its last win came in 2001 in a first-round game against Ohio State. Utah State has been to the tournament 19 times, but is 6-20 overall.
“The good news is we keep coming back and trying,” said coach Stew Morrill, who has taken his team to the tournament seven times in the past 11 years.
One problem for Utah State is that playing in the lightly regarded Western Athletic Conference generally means a low seed.
“We don’t exactly get a Caspar Milquetoast type of team,” Morrill said.
Instead, his squad has played the likes of Kansas, Arizona, Washington and Marquette.
Utah State led Marquette 49-43 with 4:41 left last year and 51-50 with 2:05 to go, but lost the lead. Returning players think about that often.
“Numerous, numerous times has that game played over in my head,” said Tai Wesley, USU’s leading scorer at 13.6 points per game.
But point guard Jared Quayle is looking forward.
“That’s the past,” he said. “We have to move on and hopefully tomorrow’s game won’t be that close and we will be up and have a comfortable lead. … They say the first game is the toughest one.”
Not for Texas A&M. A program that made only six trips to the tournament through 1987 is making its fifth in a row. Texas A&M has reached the second round every time and made it to the third round in 2007 before losing to Memphis.
“Timing? Luck? Coincidence? I don’t know,” said coach Mark Turgeon, who is making his third appearance in the tournament with Texas A&M. “We try to prepare for these teams like every other game of the season. Maybe keeping it the same is helping us.”
To get here, Texas A&M had to overcome the broken leg sustained by guard Derrick Roland against Washington in December. The team also had to contend with a wrist injury that kept guard Dash Harris out of the Big 12 tournament. Harris is playing at about 90 percent now.
“There is no doubt in my mind that we are as strong as we need to be mentally,” said Donald Sloan, who leads A&M with 18.2 points per game. “If the game is close tomorrow, we are prepared to win.”
Turgeon said a big reason for that is Sloan, who made the all-Big 12 first team.
“Ever since Derrick Roland went down, he has stepped his game up,” the coach said. “At times he carried us.”
Texas A&M is particularly worried about the nearly 42 percent that Utah State shoots from 3-point range.
“One of our goals is to make them drive a little bit more,” guard B.J. Holmes said.
Turgeon called Utah State “a perfect team,” because it has inside and outside shooters. USU averages 73 points per game and allows just 59.
Utah State is expecting physical play and needs to be competitive on the glass, Wesley said.
“If they get in the paint and penetrate all night, it’s going to be a long game for us,” Newbold added.
Neither team wants to end its season Friday.
“There is not one guy up here, or the rest of the team, ready for our season to be over,” Utah State’s Pooh Williams said.
“This is a business trip. There are no fun and games,” Texas A&M’s Bryan Davis said. “We are here just to win.”