If you’ve paid attention to ‘big time college basketball’ for awhile you’ve no doubt observed that sometimes a good team needs a coaching change to get to the proverbial ‘next level’. That appears to be what is happening with the Utah State Aggies. The Aggies have historically had a competent basketball team that were competitive with–if not as good as–Beehive State powers Utah and BYU. The Utes and Cougars now have company as the Aggies have been excellent under first year head coach Craig Smith. Utah State has made 21 NCAA tournament appearances dating back to 1939 but have a woeful 6-22 record in tournament play. The reached the ‘Elite Eight’ in 1970 only to have UCLA mop up the floor with them in the Bruins first year after the departure of Lew Alcindor. Since then, they’ve only made it out of the first round once (2001) giving them a 1-16 run in NCAA tournament play.
The Aggies will be in deep against North Carolina should they win this game but there’s every reason to think they can improve Utah State’s tournament run to 2-16. The Aggies have had a history of hiring tactically sound though somewhat avuncular coaches. Smith knows his ‘X’s and O’s’ but is more of a motivator than has been seen in the Cache Valley in recent years. In the words of freshman Brock Miller: “We would all run through a brick wall for this guy.”
Washington improved dramatically this season finishing with a 26-8 overall record and winning the Pac-12 regular season title with a 15-3 conference mark but lost to Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament finals. The Huskies are in the second year of head coach Mike Hopkins’ regime–he’s a former assistant to Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and you know what that means! That’s right! Matchup zone time! The Huskies have done a nice job implementing the trademark Syracuse defensive set and rank #30 in the country in scoring defense allowing 64.4 points per game. The bad news comes on the other end of the court where the Huskies average only 69.8 PPG which is the #254 scoring offense in the country. A bigger problem is rebounding–Huskies are #340 on the defensive boards, #212 on the offensive boards and #326 in total rebounds. Translated–the Huskies have to shut opponents down defensive or they’ll likely lose.
So how do you attack the matchup zone? You need good outside shooting to draw the zone away from the basket plus you need good passing and ball movement to take advantage of seams. Bonus points for having accurate shooters throughout the lineup so when one finds an open shot there’s a good chance it’ll go in. In other words, everything that Utah State does well. The Aggies are one of the best in the country at moving the ball around ranking #9 in assists per game (17.2). Guard Sam Merril was the Mountain West Player of the Year though highly underrated nationally. Five of the Aggies top six scorers shoot 35% or better from three point range.
The price on this game suggests that Washington might be a bit overrated and their recent ATS form further validates that. Washington is on a 1-7 run against the spread and have covered only 3 of their last 11 games. Huskies only 2-5 ATS in neutral site games and it doesn’t get more ‘neutral’ than Columbus, Ohio. Aggies enter covering their last seven of nine. Take a look at Utah State’s December 1 game against Cal-Irvine. The Anteaters also run the matchup zone and ranked #20 in the country in scoring defense. Utah State absolutely obliterated the 2-3 zone en route to a 89-65 blowout win in Irvine’s gym.