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Bubble Watch: Does Utah State deserve an at-large NCAA Tournament bid?

A three-game losing skid to open 2020 might cost Utah State a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.

NCAA Basketball: Utah State at San Diego State Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

That’s right, it’s “what does my favorite mid-major team need to do to get an at-large bid” season. Every few days, we’ll take a different team and dissect its resume to see what it needs to do to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Earlier in the series, we took at a look at Northern Iowa and East Tennessee State. Today we’ll check in with Utah State, the second-best seven-loss team in the Beehive State.

The sky was the limit for Utah State. Under the direction of former South Dakota coach Craig Smith, All-American Sam Merrill and budding superstar Neemias Queta led the Aggies to a 28-win season, an outright Mountain West championship and the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011. Better yet, Queta spurned the NBA Draft, the Aggies returned four of their five starters from that team and a return trip to the Big Dance seemed inevitable.

Then the calendar flipped from 2019 to 2020 and Utah State dropped three straight games to UNLV, San Diego State and Air Force. Midway through January, Utah State blew an 18-point lead in four minutes at Boise State and lost in overtime.

Since that disastrous 1-5 start to 2020, Utah State has gone 6-1, reassumed second place in the Mountain West and look like the team that beat LSU and Florida in the non-conference. But was pulling out of the nosedive enough, or will that three-game losing streak tank the Aggies’ NCAA Tournament hopes?


Resume:

Record: 20-7 (9-5 Mountain West)
NET: 46
KenPom: 41
Torvik: 40
SOS (per KenPom): 81
vs. Quad 1: 2-4
vs. Quad 2: 2-1
Good Wins: vs. LSU (neutral), vs. Florida (neutral), vs. North Texas (neutral)
Bad Losses: at Air Force (Q3), at UNLV (Q3)

Biggest remaining game: at New Mexico (Feb. 29)

Looking for a clear answer to whether or not Utah State is a NCAA Tournament team? Good luck. The Aggies are in the next four out according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, Bracket Matrix’s next four out, yet Bart Torvik’s TourneyCast gives them a 68.9% chance of making the tournament and a 61.2% chance of earning an at-large bid.

Speaking of TourneyCast, here are some historical comps to Utah State’s resume, which are, well, a mixed bag:

Screenshot via Barttorvik.com

Naturally, four of the 10 teams listed missed the tournament, including a pair of controversial snubs from 2018. While drawing comparisons from the Saint Mary’s team that missed the tournament (despite a 28-4 record on Selection Sunday) and the Middle Tennessee team that won Conference USA’s regular-season title that year doesn’t inspire confidence, the 2020 Utah State Aggies have what those teams didn’t: quality non-conference wins.

Utah State beat two SEC teams on a neutral floor this season, and while LSU and Florida have taken different trajectories since playing the Aggies, those wins help the Aggies’ case. Ditto for the North Texas win, which has looked significantly better since November. The Mean Green have risen 114 spots on KenPom and carry a one-game lead in C-USA. On the flipside, USU’s losses to Saint Mary’s and BYU do not look bad given both teams’ tournament odds.

If anything, Torvik’s list of similar resumes reveals that there is a precedent for going on a losing streak in MWC play and still earning an at-large bid. The 2015 Boise State Broncos carried one quality non-conference win (at Saint Mary’s) into MWC play, dropped their first three games to Colorado State, Utah State and eventual conference tournament champion Wyoming, then only lost one more conference game to Fresno State en route to an 11 seed. Even though those Broncos swept regular-season champs San Diego State, the Aztecs were not the Final Four contenders that they are now. And the current Utah State non-conference resume is much stronger than that of the 2015 Broncos.

Right now, Utah State’s biggest concern is a lack of quality road wins. The Aggies are 3-4 on the road in MWC play, but they’re trending in the right direction. That Colorado State road win was huge, as it was USU’s first Quad. 2 road win all season. Even though the casual basketball fan will look at Utah State’s win over Colorado State and scoff, the stats and rankings don’t lie. That win will carry more weight than one would think.

To top it all off, the Aggies have held up their end of the bargain by winning games again. They’re 6-1 since the Boise State comeback, and the four remaining games in conference play are winnable. KenPom gives Utah State at least a 66% chance of winning against Fresno State, Wyoming, San José State and New Mexico over the next two weeks. Better yet, Fresno State and New Mexico would both be Quad. 2 wins that USU desperately needs, as opportunities for Quad. 1 wins are out of the question aside from playing San Diego State in the conference tournament.

To further cement Utah State’s status as an at-large team, Aggie fans need to root for North Texas to win C-USA, Florida to stop floundering against middling SEC teams, fringe Big Ten teams like Minnesota and Indiana to burn out, and for the American to be a one-bid league. But as long as Utah State keeps winning, it might create its own luck.

Verdict: Given how the team has rebounded, be cautiously optimistic. History has shown that losing four games in the Mountain West doesn’t take a team out of the running for an at-large bid. If the Aggies win out and make a Mountain West Championship appearance, then they should be in the field.