There’s a handful of teams out of the West Coast that frequently make noise in the college basketball world. There’s obviously the Gonzaga Bulldogs, who hold dominion over the WCC and is only two years removed from the national championship game. There’s Nevada, who stormed back from a 22-point deficit over Cincinnati last year to punch a ticket to the Sweet 16.
Two others that will introduce themselves to the country this week for the first time in quite a few seasons. No. 8 seed Utah State (28-6) will face No. 9 seed Washington (26-8) in the Midwest Regional Friday (9:50 p.m. EST, TNT) in Columbus (Ohio).
The Aggies won 3 games in 3 days in the Mountain West Tournament to clinch an automatic bid, while the Huskies won the Pac-12 regular-season title. Both last reached March Madness in 2011.
Let’s take a look at both teams’ resumes before taking a stab at a prediction.
Utah State NCAA Tournament Resume
The Aggies took some time to hit their stride this season, starting just 11-5. A 5-point loss to 11-seed Arizona State and a 60-50 defeat to 3-seed Houston were close efforts versus quality teams. They did take down WCC Tournament champion Saint Mary’s and Big West champion UC Irvine both by double-digits.
A 72-49 rout at the hands of Nevada knocked head coach Craig Smith’s team out of its funk. From there, the Aggies ripped off 18 wins in 20 games, including one over the 7-seeded Wolf Pack.
The Mountain West is considered the No. 10 conference nationally per Ken Pomeroy, so tieing for first-place in the regular season and seizing the conference tournament is nothing to sneeze at for a mid-major.
Washington NCAA Tournament Resume
Head coach Mike Hopkins came to Seattle by way of Syracuse as an assistant to Jim Boeheim. Two years after Lorenzo Romar left with just a 9-22 record, Hopkins and the Huskies piled up 26 victories, including a 10-0 start in Pac-12 play.
The non-conference was less successful, but all 4 blemishes came against fellow tournament teams. Additionally, a road trip to No. 1 seed Gonzaga ended up as just an 81-79 loss.
The Pac-12 is definitely the weakest of the power conferences (No. 6 overall per Pomeroy), but starting 10-0 with road wins at scrappy Colorado, Oregon and Oregon State is an accomplishment. At 22-5 and 13-1 in-conference, Washington looked more than just solid by West Coast standards…
…until it dropped an embarrassing game to 8-23 Cal. Since then, Washington is just 4-2, which includes a pair of losses to Pac-12 Tournament champion Oregon.
Utah State vs. Washington Predictions and Picks
Utah State enters with all the momentum, while Washington hasn’t really recovered since the shocker in Berkeley. In addition, the Aggies are more balanced on both sides of the court.
Utah State has the No. 32 efficiency offense and No. 47 efficiency defense (points per possession). Meanwhile, Washington trots out a top-20 defense but an offense outside the top-100.
The heart and soul for the Aggies is 6-foot-5 guard Sam Merrill. The junior scores 21.2 points a game (off 38 percent shooting from deep), while also dishing out an average of 4.2 assists.
He teams up with 6-foot-11, 240-pound center Neemias Queta. He’s the only other player to score in double figures (11.9 ppg), but he crashes the boards (8.9 rebounds per contest) and affects shots (2.4 blocks per game).
Washington counters with a handful of NBA talent, including guard Jaylen Nowell and forward Matisse Thybulle. Nowell leads the charge on offense with 16.2 points per game and over 43 percent shooting from behind the arc. Thybulle is the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year with over 2 blocks and 3 steals a night.
Point guard David Crisp and power forward Noah Dickerson are the others that score in double-digits. Dickerson, in particular, is a 6-foot-8, 245-pound body that can bully his way to points inside.
Hopkins brought with him the 2-3 matchup zone popularized by Jim Boeheim in Syracuse. There are two ways to beat it: perfect passing execution or make 3-pointers over it. Utah State assists on 62 percent of its field goals, which is No. 6 nationally.
With a decent 36 percent mark from deep, the Aggies may be able to do both. Washington’s offense may not be able to keep up, as it has scored under 50 points twice in the last four games.
Utah State wins a close win to advance to the Round of 32 against No. 1 seed North Carolina.
OddsShark gives Utah State +25000 odds to win it all, and Washington +15000.