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Utah State is still class of the WAC
by Dan Eckles - Commentary
Mar 20, 2010 | 616 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
SPOKANE — As I watched Utah State and New Mexico State fall in their NCAA Tournament first-round games Friday up here in the great inland northwest, it occurred to me, Nevada is the lone WAC school to win a game in the Big Dance since the impressive run of good Tulsa teams that ended in 2003.

Nevada won four games in the tourney during its four-year stretch of dominating the WAC from 2004-2007. The Wolf Pack reached the Sweet 16 in 2004, dumping Michigan State and Gonzaga on its Cinderella trek. Nevada then beat Texas in 2005 before falling to No. 1 seed and national runner-up Illinois. A year later, a fifth-seeded Nevada was upset in Salt Lake City by Montana. And then in 2007, the Pack outlasted Creighton before getting beat by Memphis.

Those were special Nevada teams that had superior talent to other WAC teams. Still, fair or unfair, I think Nevada's recent success has raised the expectation level for other conference schools when they reach the tournament.

Over the past few weeks, I've heard the rumblings of frustration in the Utah State camp about the Aggies' lack of success once they reach the tournament. One of the first questions asked of Utah State's all-WAC forward Tai Wesley during a press conference Thursday was ... Utah State 's been to the tournament a lot in recent years, but has not had success there. Do you guys address that at all? Are you doing anything different this year from previous trips there?

It's a fair question, but it also alludes to the underlying sentiment in Aggie land.

At the WAC Tournament a week and a half ago, one local reporter asked me something to the effect of, at what point does Utah State let coach Stew Morrill go if he can't win in the big tournament. I was pretty surprised. I guess we do live in a jaded, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately society, but if Stew Morrill, even in the deepest, darkest back craters of his soul, has to start to worry about his job, that's crazy.

The Aggies have received NCAA Tournament berths seven times over the past 11 years, three times getting at-large invitations. Granted the Aggies are 1-7 in those trips — Nevada was 4-4 in its four-year run — but no other WAC team can even come close to boasting of USU's pro-longed success.

"It's been talked a lot about, that we haven't won a game since 2001," Morrill said in his Thursday press conference. "The good news is we keep coming back and trying ... If you look at who we have played, it's a who's who of college basketball. I mean it's Connecticut, Ohio State, Kansas, Arizona, Washington, Marquette. It's all BCS teams. So it's a challenge."

I think it's important to point out that Utah State was not favored to win any of those games. It's hard to criticize the Aggies for not winning games they weren't supposed to win. During Nevada's four-year run, the Pack was never seeded lower than tenth in its region, thus never facing a first-round foe seeded high than seventh. Utah State has never been seeded as high as Nevada was.

After falling 69-53 to Big 12 power Texas A&M Friday afternoon, Morrill was asked what the next step was and what he needed to do to get his team an NCAA tournament win.

Give Morrill credit. He didn't miss a beat, showing to all he's got a sense of humor, saying, "Get a better draw. Don't play a team as good as Texas A&M. Get a better seed maybe, who knows. We're searching for this and that and we're just not giving Texas A&M the credit it deserves."

Some have questioned Morrill's scheduling strategy, criticizing him for not putting together a tough enough schedule that could better challenge his team. He addressed that, too. If you've seen Aggies fans travel to Reno to play against Nevada or in the WAC tourney, you know how obnoxious and loud they can be. And that's just 2,000 or so of them. Now imagine 10,000-plus of them supporting their team on campus in Logan.

Teams don't want to go there if they don't have to. And the Aggies shouldn't sell their future, being forced to play two-for-ones, to get tough competition to play them at home.

"We won 27 games and I guess if we could get Duke to play us at home and home that would be good," Morrill said, responding to the scheduling question after Friday's loss. "That would probably help us. You schedule the best people you can ... I get a bad rap sometimes for scheduling and I'm not near as stubborn or inflexible as people think. We try and get as good opponents as we can. We've got a great home court. We were 6-2 on the road in league. It's just, everybody wants more, including me. We all want to win in the NCAAs. But we got beat by a better team today. They're better than us. Let's be honest. They're better than us."

Morrill's Aggies have been beaten by a few better teams along the way during their NCAA tourney trips over the past decade. There's no shame in that. Morrill has brought more success and respect to Utah State than any other coach in program history. Aggies fans should not compare their program to Nevada 's or anyone else's. They should appreciate what they have and do whatever they can to help the USU crew get over the hump once they do advance into the postseason.

In fact, the roles have reversed. It's time for Nevada start comparing itself to Utah State, how to beat the Aggies in a big game, get back to the NCAAs and win there.

Dan Eckles is the Sparks Tribune sports editor. He can be reached via email at: deckles@dailysparkstribune.com

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Utah State is still class of the WAC by Dan Eckles - Commentary


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