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Tucson Subregional: Utah State gets raw deal as No. 12 seed

Utah State players celebrate winning the WAC tournament last week.
Photo by Douglas C. Pizac-US PRESSWIRE

I was prepared to pick Utah State to make a run in my NCAA Tournament bracket. And then the selection committee messed up.

The Aggies, at 30-3 and the champions of the WAC regular season and conference tournament, were expecting to be seeded better than No. 12. Coach Stew Morrill said that before the announcement. He said that after the announcement.

He was right in thinking that.

But No. 12 is what they got. And then the selection committee paired Utah State against Kansas State, a major-conference team with superior athleticism — just about the last thing the Aggies wanted. (See, Texas A&M, 2010 NCAA Tournament.)

“The thing I’ve told our players — we were going to get a good team,” Morrill said at a press conference at McKale Center on Wednesday.

“Even if we were a 7 through 10, which is what we hoped for, we were going to get a very good team. That’s what we have in Kansas State. When you get to the NCAA Tournament, that’s what you are looking at.”

Morrill knows. This is his eighth NCAA appearance in 13 years with Utah State. Problem is, Utah State has lost five consecutive first-round games. The Aggies are always looking up at a better-seeded opponent.

Despite their hopes, this year is no different.

So why should this year’s result be different?

In a lot of ways, Utah State is the same as always. The Aggies shoot well from all distances. They are mature. Five of their top seven players are seniors. The other two are juniors. Many are returned missionaries. The average age of the top seven players is just about 23 years old.

Utah State has the WAC Player of the Year in senior forward Tai Wesley, a savvy post player. The Aggies have two talented bench players — shooting ace Brian Green and all-energy forward Brady Jardine.

Senior guard Tyler Newbold is the WAC’s Defensive Player of the Year, matching the honor that senior guard Pooh Williams won last season.

So, the Aggies have more than a few things going for them … other than being really battle-tested and having a lot of signature wins. Yeah, it’s that lousy strength of schedule that kept Utah State from a better seed.

But as Morrill explains multiple times every year, you try to get a high-major team to visit Logan — where the Aggies almost never lose.

But there is one thing different about this Utah State team.

That would be junior point guard Brockeith Pane, who is in his first season at Utah State after transferring from junior college and beginning his career at Houston.

He doesn’t shoot as well as Utah State point guards usually shoot. He doesn’t pass as well as Utah State point guards typically pass. The thing he can do is win one-on-one battles with his athleticism.

The Aggies’ offense often has struggled in the tournament when faced against long, athletic teams. You might recall that Utah State shot 36.4 percent against Arizona in a 66-53 loss in the 2005 first round. Utah State shot less than 39 percent in a 69-53 loss to Texas A&M last season.

But Pane has the ability to drive and penetrate and create something out of nothing. If he can handle Kansas State’s pressure and kick-start the offense, then Utah State has a chance at the upset.

The Aggies are better than No. 12. Even Arizona coach Sean Miller, commenting on the strength of all the 12 seeds in this tournament, said, “I watched Utah State very closely at 30-3, and it’s hard to believe they’re a 12 seed.”

The selection committee did Utah State no favors. Kansas State has been up and down, but the Wildcats have the ability to go deep into the tournament.

I’m going to stick with my original hunch, though.

This veteran Utah State team, for three or four years, has been building to this moment.

The Aggies with the upset.

Tucson Subregional schedule at McKale Center
11:10 a.m. — Temple vs. Penn State (TNT)
About 1:40 p.m. — San Diego State vs. Northern Colorado (TNT)
4:27 p.m. — Wisconsin vs. Belmont (truTV)
About 6:57 p.m. — Kansas State vs. Utah State (truTV)

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