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Utah State’s Cinderella X-Factor

Utah State is an interesting situation going into the NCAA tournament, and quite possibly, the biggest favorite to win their first round match up in program history.

The Aggies have had a dominant run of success in basketball from 1999-2013 sporting the longest run of 20 win seasons in the state of Utah with 14 straight seasons. Yet those years of 20 win seasons didn’t amount to much success in the “Big Dance”.

Their lone win came against the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2001. Ohio State (20-11), placed as a five seed, had the responsibility to take on the Big West tournament champion Utah State Aggies (28-5), who were placed as a 12 seed. The Aggies topped the Buckeyes in overtime to give the Aggies their first NCAA tournament victory since 1970.

Third year into the Stew Morrill era, and they would be back many times in the coming years. In fact, the Aggies would return six more times under Morrill, but would never get through the first round.

This is why the move to the Mountain West Conference has been the biggest factor for the Aggies in their return to the tournament.

A lot can be said for the Aggie’s in the early 2000s, but something clear for Aggie fans is they could never get a favorable seed. In two different occasions the Aggies would win 30 games, but see themselves as an 11 or 12 seed, to only lose to a Marquette or Kansas State.

The move to the MWC wasn’t an easy one, and quite frankly, nearly lost the fan base along with it. Five years later, the Aggies find themselves on top of the Mountain, and headed to Columbus, Ohio, in their Aggie whites as the Vegas favorite to beat the Pac-12 Champion Washington Huskies.

It’s going to be an interesting matchup for the Aggies, as Washington guard Matisse Thybulle will undoubtedly get tasked on stopping MWC player-of-the-year Sam Merrill. Thybulle is an incredible defender boasting a nation leading 3.4 steals per game, and 2.3 blocks per game.

USU isn’t the traditional mid-major, mainly because they have size to go along with their scoring. Merrill may be the star of the team, but what I think is their X-factor to getting through Washington and to give North Carolina a run, is Neemias Queta.

Queta will be the first player from Portugal to be drafted and play in the NBA. Whether it’s this upcoming draft or the next, but I think his play in this tournament will decide his draft stock.

Coming out of nowhere, Queta proved to be a programming changing prospect for USU.

His defense is what he’s known for, and has the defensive impact like Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert has on the floor, but his defense won’t be what takes the Aggies to the next level.

The Aggies are remarkably 21-2 when Queta scores more than 10 points per game.

Queta, who stands 6’11”, isn’t your average tall and skinny big man. Queta has a lot of force behind him weighing in at 225 lbs. which is surprising since he didn’t join the team until late August. Imagine what he could look like with an entire off-season of workouts behind him.

Where NBA scouts are excited about is the progression of his low-post game. Queta early on in the season showed glimpses of his potential down low. A game against BYU comes to mind, Yoeli Childs pretty much guaranteed the Cougar victory that night, but fans around Provo left talking about the potential of the young big man from Portugal.

He has this knack of showing he’s going to take off, but then he’ll score 0 points against Houston, or eight at Nevada, or five against Arizona State.

For anyone who has sat and watched the ending of the Mountain West tournament, you saw what happens when the Aggies run the offense through him.

In games against Fresno State and SDSU, the Aggies ran the ball through Queta and his vision sparked the rest of the offense. If defenses refuse to double team, in fear of his passing game, he has the offensive IQ to understand he’s got the mismatch down low and maneuvers around his shorter opponents.

This is the key for a Aggie run in the tournament. The Aggies will rely on Merrill to score his usual 20 points, but in the case where Merrill is having an off game, they have to rely on their freshman center to carry them the rest of the way.

In their first match up, the Washington Huskies start two forwards who are 6’9″ and 6’8″. After that their bench remains fairly small, with only one forward at 6’11” on the bench who averages 10 minutes per game. Coming from a Syracuse system, Washington head coach, Mike Hopkins runs primarily a zone defense, and hopes to cause enough havoc to create turnovers and get on the break for easy buckets.

In their match-up with Fresno State in the MWC semi-finals, the Bulldogs quickly came out in a zone defense, but you’ll see in the highlight video above the Aggies ball movement allowed them to score at ease against the zone. Including dumping down to Queta, letting him read the defense, and attacking or dishing when needing to. The Aggies forced the Bulldogs to go man primarily the rest of the game.

In the second half against SDSU, the Aztecs came out with a 3-2 zone to limit the Aggies shooting, but Queta took control and scored on multiple occasions against their zone defense before the Aztecs moved to a man defense the rest of the way.

However, Queta has had a problem in the past with foul trouble, picking up four fouls in each of their conference tournament games.

If the Aggies were to make any noise in the tournament, I would put all my money on it being because Queta stayed out of foul trouble, anchored their defense and dominated the boards.

In this case, Aggie fans should expect to hear his name be called in this upcoming draft, but I’m willing to bet they would be just fine with it if they can see their Aggies advance a couple rounds.

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