Utah State waves farewell to at-large bid

February, 10, 2011
Before the season began, the team with the best shot at going undefeated throughout its entire conference schedule wasn't Duke. Or Kansas. Or Ohio State. Or Pittsburgh. It was, believe it or not, Utah State.

Yes, the Aggies began the year as overwhelming WAC favorites, that rare kind of mid-major team that looks like a totally singular outlier in its own conference. Thanks to that disparity, Ken Pomeroy projected Stew Morrill & Co. with the "highest" probability of an undefeated season -- the Aggies had a 1.14 percent chance, so "least low" is probably more accurate -- of any team in the nation. Projection-wise, Utah State had a greater than 80 percent chance to win every game on its schedule but two: a Nov. 17 date at BYU and a Dec. 4 trip to Georgetown.

In other words, the stakes for Utah State were clear from the beginning. The Aggies needed to win one of those nonconference games. If they didn't, they'd probably have to win out in conference play -- a reasonable ask, given how bad the WAC is -- to make the NCAA tournament as an at-large bid.

Since losing at Georgetown, the Aggies had rolled off 17 straight wins, many of which came by blowout margins. In the process, Utah State earned itself a spot in the Top 25 and got themselves listed in the Bubble Watch. But they were far from a slam-dunk case. Not only do the Aggies not have a win against the RPI top 50, they don't have a win against anyone ranked in the RPI top 100. That does not a strong bubble case make.

All of which is a prelude to this: Utah State lost -- yes, lost -- at Idaho Wednesday night (a result you might have missed if you were caught up in the rest of the hoops madness), and thanks to that loss, you can probably bury the Aggies' at-large bid chances somewhere on the outskirts of Logan. If Stew Morrill's 22-3 team wants to get in the dance now, it'll have to win the WAC conference tournament. It's a weird sentence to write -- 22-3! -- but in this case, it's true.

There is some good news here, though. One: That bubble is still very soft. Two: With their recent jump into the Top 25, the Aggies have received a nice dose of national attention that might help them catch the ever-wandering eye of the committee in advance of Selection Sunday. And three: Utah State still has a chance to get a win over another highly regarded mid-major bubble team -- St. Mary's -- when the Aggies travel to Moraga for a big-time BracketBusters matchup Feb. 19. A win there might not seal a bid, but it would certainly help this team climb out of this unfortunate at-large hole.

Such is life as a mid-major. You can't get teams to come play you in your house -- why would they? -- so you go on the road. You lose those games. Your conference stinks. Your margin for error is minuscule. You beat everyone's brains in, but you slip up once on the road, and then splat: Your at-large bid goes bye bye.

It isn't fair, but it's life, and you know how the old saying goes: When life throws you a terrible schedule and no RPI top 100 wins, make automatic-qualifier lemonade. Or something like that.



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