Utah State's home dominance has created a scheduling dilemma

Twelve years into his tenure as Utah State basketball coach, Stew Morrill admits he's still awed by the synchronized cheers and organized taunts the Aggies' legion of blue-clad student fans unleashes on opponents each game.

There's the "Welcome to Hell" chant they do before every tipoff. There's the "Winning Team, Losing Team" chant just before every final buzzer. And then there's special occasions like Reggie Theus lookalike night in 2007 when many students arrived shirtless and covered in body oil, mimicking a photo of the then-New Mexico State coach taken during his modeling days years earlier.

"That's one of the huge things we sell in recruiting is that our student section has been compared to Duke's with their ingenuity and enthusiasm," Morrill said. "It's a unique thing. You don't get it as much in college basketball anymore, so we feel very fortunate to have that kind of student support."

The intimidating environment at the Spectrum is a big reason Utah State is an amazing 176-13 there during Morrill's tenure, but such a formidable home-court advantage also has some drawbacks. Because BCS programs and quality mid-majors know how difficult it is to win in Logan, they're extremely reluctant to schedule a home-and-home series with Utah State or even agree to a 2-for-1.

Unable to lure marquee teams to Logan and unwilling to travel to BCS conference schools without a return game, Morrill has been criticized by those who insist Utah State can't rise to the stature of a Gonzaga without playing higher-profile opponents. Morrill remains committed to his scheduling philosophy despite the backlash, pointing to 11 consecutive postseason berths and two at-large bids in the past five years as evidence what he's doing must be working.

"Scheduling is one of those things that everybody wants to talk about, but most people don't understand," Morrill said. "I get criticized a lot for scheduling, but you have to be smart about it. People want you to do stupid things, but had we done some of those stupid things, we wouldn't have gotten two at-large berths in the last five years.

"My scheduling philosophy has always been we'll play anybody that will return the game and we won't necessarily rule out a two-for-one, but it's got to do something for us too. A few years ago, a team in our league went out to raise their strength of schedule. They did that, but their RPI got a whole lot worse because they couldn't win those games."

The crux of the issue comes down to whether Utah State fans are satisfied with the current status of the program.

If annually competing for league titles and NCAA tournament berths is sufficient, then stop bashing Morrill because his scheduling philosophy has proven it can achieve this. If entering the NCAA tournament as a double-digit seed and losing in the opening round most years is getting frustrating, then keep pushing Morrill to accept those marquee road games but know you risk halting your current run of success in the process.

Since Utah State loses only one rotation player from last season's 27-win team, and WAC rivals Nevada and New Mexico State sustained heavy losses to the NBA draft, the Aggies should be prepared for the scheduling debate to again flare up. A weakened WAC won't help Utah State's RPI or strength of schedule much, so the Aggies would need high-profile non-conference victories to have a realistic shot of drastically improving their NCAA tournament seeding.

Morrill hasn't given up on adding a marquee opponent to the schedule, keeping two slots vacant as late as possible in hopes that a BCS program desperate for a home game next season will agree to return it the following year. If that creative strategy doesn't work, however, then the Aggies' schedule will look very similar to that of previous years.

So far Utah State knows it will play its traditional in-state opponents, hosting Utah and traveling to BYU to face a Cougars team that should contend for the Mountain West title. Aside from that, Utah State will host Troy State, Western Michigan and Idaho State in its exempt tournament and also bring in Long Beach State and Northeastern.

It's a schedule that isn't exactly riddled with made-for-TV showdowns, but was good enough to earn the Aggies a No. 12 seed in the NCAA tournament in March after New Mexico State upset them in the WAC title game.

"Some of the coaches in our league were asking me the recipe to get an at-large," Morrill said. "I told them, 'Well, all you've got to do is win 17 straight, 14 in league, beat BYU, beat Wichita State in BracketBuster, get to the finals of your tournament, lose in a close game and then sweat your rear end off on Sunday whether you're in or not."

Pausing to stifle a wry chuckle, he added, "Nothing to it."

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