BOISE, Idaho (AP)—Utah State coach Stew Morrill has gotten used to the daunting matchups the Aggies have drawn in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Washington, Arizona, Kansas … Morrill can recite the list from memory as he tracks Utah State’s most recent tournament berths.
“When you look at who we have played in the NCAAs, it’s like a who’s who of college basketball,” Morrill said.
Who’s next? Marquette, another team from a powerhouse conference that got seven teams into the tournament.
“It’s been a challenging game every time out,” Morrill said. “It’s no different than it’s been in the past when we have been here.”
The Aggies are back in the field for the first time since 2006 and have one very important distinction from the past teams: This has been the best season in school history.
Utah State (30-4) has already eclipsed the school record of 28 wins and is trying to cap that by making a run in the tournament. And the Aggies are doing it all with a squad that features only one senior and nobody who has played in an NCAA tournament game.
“We’ll just play the way we have played all year,” said forward Gary Wilkinson, the Aggies’ only senior. “It’s worked for us so far and hopefully it will continue to work for us tomorrow.”
The Aggies, who lead the nation in field goal shooting at almost 50 percent, are seeded No. 11 in the West Regional after sweeping the Western Athletic Conference regular season and tournament titles. It’s their best seed since they were a No. 10 in 1988.
For once, Utah State may have gotten a break in the pairings in Marquette (24-9), which has been reeling since losing point guard Dominic James to a foot injury against Connecticut on Feb. 25.
The Golden Eagles lost their last four games of the regular season and five of their last six. The only win was a blowout over St. John’s in the Big East tournament, which was followed by a heartbreaking loss to Villanova in the quarterfinals on a last-second layup.
The Golden Eagles rallied from a 17-point deficit to take a one-point lead they couldn’t quite hold. The way the last four weeks have gone, that’s a huge positive for Marquette.
“We’re adjusting to life without Dominic,” guard Wesley Matthews said. “This team is ready. We’re prepared. And more importantly, we’re excited to play again.”
The Golden Eagles are a long way from home while the Aggies are quite comfortable in Boise, where they play once a year during the WAC schedule. It’s about a 300-mile drive from the Aggies’ campus in northern Utah. The blue-and-white clad fans are expected to pack the arena just as if they were at the Dee Glen Spectrum in Logan, Utah, where the raucous student section stands non-stop and heckles the visitors for 40 minutes.
The celebration could be huge if the Aggies win their first NCAA tournament game since beating Ohio State 77-68 in overtime in 2001. Since then, the Aggies have faced UCLA, Kansas, Arizona and Washington and failed to pull off another upset.
Friday’s winner will face either third-seed Missouri or Ivy League champion Cornell in the second round, which has been hard to reach for Marquette since Dwyane Wade led the Golden Eagles to the Final Four in 2003. Marquette lost first-round games in 2006 and 2007 before opening with a 74-66 win over Kentucky in last year.
The Golden Eagles appeared ready for another run early in the season as they opened Big East play 8-0 and were ranked as high as No. 8 before the late-season tumble, which started when James broke a bone in his left foot. James was fourth on the team in scoring and led Marquette in assists before the injury ended his season.
Marquette struggled without him, but the Golden Eagles were also in the toughest part of their schedule. Three of the losses were to Connecticut, Louisville and Pittsburgh—which ended up as No. 1 seeds in the tournament. The others were Syracuse and Villanova, which both got No. 3 seeds.
“One of the constant things that you get out of coming out of the Big East Conference is just tough, hard-nosed physical play,” guard Jerel McNeal said. “I think that over the next couple of days people out here are going to get a taste of that.”
Marquette is in the national tournament for the fourth straight year, and six of the Golden Eagles have played at least two NCAA games. This will be the first appearance under coach Buzz Williams, who was promoted from assistant last year when Tom Crean took over at Indiana.
Williams started the season with a lineup stocked with upperclassmen, then lost an offensive keystone in James, who started 127 of the 128 games he played at Marquette.
“We miss him, but I think that with each passing day we have continued to get better and learn to be more efficient within what we have to do,” he said.