First-Round Danger: Utah State Preview

I have no qualms with the seemingly consensus opinion that K-State is slightly over-seeded (the only team in the Big 12 with that distinction) and fortunate to be in easily the weakest region in the bracket.

But for all of that good luck, there's also a downside. The Wildcats got matched up against the best 12 seed in the tournament (seriously, has any 30-3 team ever been seeded so badly?). Although Utah State is perhaps most well-known for its home-court advantage and creative student section cheers, they're also pretty good at basketball.

The RPI puts them at #15, Ken Pomeroy's ratings put them at #17 in the country, the AP put them at #19, and Jeff Sagarin puts them at #21. In fact, KenPom projects a 64-62 Utah State win.

I don't have the time or resources to look it up, but I would imagine you'd be hard-pressed to find another 12 seed ranked so high across the board in NCAA Tournament history. This is an experienced squad that thrives on defense, two great attributes to have in March.

Plus, you should probably expect a decent contingent of navy and white in Tucson. It's about three times as far away from the Utah State campus in Logan as Boise, where I was actually in attendance two years ago when Utah State lost by just one to Marquette. But I was definitely impressed by the size and enthusiasm from the crowd and would expect something more than a typical 12-seed crowd on Thursday night.

Before you get too concerned though, we can at least take heart in the fact that Utah State has lost five straight since a first-round overtime upset of fifth seed Ohio State in 2001. I would also add that even though all of the aforementioned rankings do take strength of schedule into account, the Aggies are a little overrated, just because the rest of the WAC is even worse than the rest of the conference compared to Boise State in football.

It's true that Utah State's only bad loss was at Idaho (the other two came against Georgetown and BYU), but it's also worth noting that its only RPI top 100 win was an admittedly impressive BracketBusters victory at St. Mary's. The Aggies' defense (no one has scored more than 71 in regulation since the loss to BYU in November) and experience (they start four seniors and a junior, plus another senior averages 10 points off the bench) means they're consistent enough to avoid slip-ups, but it's hard to say how they'll fare against a team as talented and athletic as Kansas State.

Offensively, the Aggies' backcourt will do everything it can to slow the game down and get it inside to WAC Player of the Year Tai Wesley, a senior with good size and athleticism around the basket who can also dish it out well to a deadly three-point shooter in Brian Green (47%) and a couple decent ones in Pooh Williams (36%) and Tyler Newbold (35%).

One other thing about Wesley: He's kind of an asshole (just look at him on the right in that picture for evidence), so Jamar Samuels and Curtis Kelly will need to be on their best behavior.

K-State's ability to keep Wesley out of the paint and off the glass should be the most important thing defensively, and forcing turnovers with high pressure defense will be important as well. Nate Bendall, the 6-9 forward who plays opposite Wesley, has been scoring and rebounding well of late, but he's not nearly as athletic and hopefully KSU's pressure will cause him some problems.

The Aggies committed just 12 per game, but they play such a plodding pace that their KenPom turnover percentage of 18.3% is only 71st in the country. I'm also willing to bet they haven't seen any defenders like Jacob Pullen, who will likely draw the assignment of Brockeith Pane, an explosive 6-1 point guard who can't shoot the three, but still is the team's second-leading scorer because of his ability to attack the basket and create his own shot better than any of his teammates. I'd like to think Pullen should dominate against a JUCO transfer running the show on a big stage for the first time.

I didn't get a chance to watch too much Utah State basketball this year, but they seem like a very efficient team that will make you work on both ends of the floor and plays very tough straight-up man-to-man defense. As important as the Pullen-Pane matchup will be, I think it will be the play of Kelly and Samuels that will likely decide this game. Even Jordan Henriquez-Roberts could be vital with his huge size advantage coming off the bench.

K-State will get into trouble in this game if they start trying go one-on-one too quickly or force up shots, particularly from beyond the arc. Utah State is the second-best team in the country in terms of not allowing offensive rebounds, so the Wildcats probably won't have that weapon to bail them out when the halfcourt offense falters. Basically, Pullen and Co. need to find a way to push the pace and find fast-break opportunities without taking too many stupid shots off the dribble or just a couple passes in the halfcourt offense. It won't be easy.

I don't think Utah State has anyone that K-State can't find a way to match up with one-on-one defensively, so the Wildcats will just have to keep the energy up and make sure they know where Green is on the perimeter at all times. If I had to guess, I'd say if the Wildcats get up over 60, they'll have a great chance of winning this game. If not, this roller-coaster of a season is going to end on an extremely sour note.

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