Utah hires Utah State’s Craig Smith as basketball coach

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SALT LAKE CITY – Utah has hired Utah State’s Craig Smith as its men’s basketball coach.

The school announced Saturday that Smith will replace Larry Krystkowiak, who was fired this month.

Smith turned Utah State into one of the nation’s best mid-major programs in a short span, leading the Aggies to the NCAA Tournament twice in three years. Utah State won the Mountain West Conference Tournament title in 2020, but didn’t get a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Utah State won the MWC Tournament again this season and won 20 games before losing 65-53 to Texas Tech in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

Smith has been an adept recruiter in Logan, bringing in players like Sam Merrill, now with the NBA’s Boston Celtics, and Portuguese big man Neemias Queta.

He previously coached four seasons at South Dakota before being hired by Utah State in 2018.

Utah State fired Krystkowiak on March 16 after he went 183-139 during 10 seasons in Salt Lake City.

Texas Tech uses second-half surge to get past Utah State 65-53

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Mac McClung scored 16 points in his first career NCAA Tournament game and Kyler Edwards added 12 to help sixth-seeded Texas Tech pull away from 11th-seeded Utah State 65-53 on Friday.

The Red Raiders snapped a two-game losing streak and made new memories in the tournament after their most recent appearance, a loss to Virginia in the 2019 national championship game. Texas Tech (18-10) can reach its third consecutive Sweet 16 with a win over third-seeded Arkansas on Sunday.

“We told our guys to play fearless, to play with courage and to let it rip,” Red Raiders coach Chris Beard said. “That’s our theme this year – we’re here, let it rip. We think we can win six games in this tournament.”

The Red Raiders listened – but they also faced a daunting challenge against Utah State center Neemias Queta. He finished with 11 points, 13 rebounds and six assists, and tied the school’s single-game school record with seven blocks. Justin Bean had 13 points and eight rebounds for the Aggies (20-9), who lost their final two games.

“Not many guys in the world – I mean college basketball, NBA, pro basketball, in the world – can do something like that,” Utah State coach Craig Smith said, referring to Queta’s numbers. “He’s a star player, and your star players have to deliver, especially when the pressure is on and he did.”

McClung, the high-scoring graduate transfer from Georgetown, managed to keep the Red Raiders close early, though they trailed most of the first half.

Terrence Shannon Jr. changed the game by scoring eight of his 10 points during the decisive 13-0 run early in the second half to make it 38-31. Texas Tech sealed it with a 9-2 spurt that extended its lead to 58-43.

Kevin McCullar had 10 points and seven rebounds for Texas Tech.

“We had to make some adjustments at halftime,” McCullar said. “We were trying to be more aggressive on defense. TJ (Shannon) started making shots and we just played better on the defensive end in the second half.”

BIG PICTURE

Utah State: Queta, a junior, was impressive on a day the Aggies committed 22 turnovers and were far from flawless. If the junior returns next season, the Aggies could be back and might even get their first tourney win since 2001. He joins Baylor’s Ekpe Udoh, in 2010, as the only players in tournament history to finish with at least 10 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and five blocks since blocks became a recognized stat.

Texas Tech: Despite forcing 13 first-half turnovers, the Red Raiders stumbled offensively. Shannon helped the Red Raiders get back on track in the second half as they looked like a team that climbed as high as No. 7 in the rankings this season.

SEEN YOU BEFORE?

Perhaps Utah State guard Marco Anthony looked familiar to Beard and the Red Raiders. After all, the 6-foot-5 guard was on the opposing bench during Texas Tech’s title game loss to Virginia. Anthony didn’t play that night but the San Antonio prep star made an impact this time, scoring 11 points.

REMEMBER THE RING

After being pulled off the floor during warmups for a first-round Big 12 Tournament game last March and learning on the flight home that the NCAA had canceled its tournament, Beard gave each player a ring to commemorate the lost season.

HE SAID IT

“I want to thank Mr. (Joe) Lunardi. He never picks us and our guys kind of feed off this,” Beard said in reference to ESPN’s longtime bracket analyst. “I tell our guys to stay off social media. It’s kind of hard this time of year but a couple of guys brought that to our attention. Not sure if he got a speeding ticket in Lubbock back in the day or whatever, but we made a run in the last tournament and we intend to make a run again.”

Big Ten-toughened Ohio State back on track after late skid

Ohio State basketball huddles
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The late-season stumble was big enough to push Ohio State into fifth place in the loaded Big Ten, an ill-timed four-game losing streak they carried into the conference tournament that raised some questions about how equipped the Buckeyes were for a march through March.

Duane Washington Jr. and his schedule-toughened teammates made clear they’ll be a tough out the rest of the way. Oral Roberts is up first for second-seeded Ohio State on Friday in the South Region.

“I don’t know that we were shook maybe as much as people might’ve expected us to be shook during that closing stretch,” coach Chris Holtmann said. “I’ve never been one, honestly, to really read too much into a losing streak or a winning streak and necessarily what that guarantees going into tournament play, because I don’t think it guarantees much of anything.”

After losing in succession to Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa and Illinois – a quartet of NCAA Tournament teams including two No. 1 seeds and a No. 2 – the Buckeyes beat Minnesota, Purdue and Michigan in consecutive tight games at the Big Ten Tournament. They lost to Illinois in overtime for the title. A whopping 19 of Ohio State’s 30 games this season were against NCAA Tournament teams, with 12 wins.

Strength of schedule is often the golden ticket to a high seed, but it can be a double-edged sword.

“It can possibly mess you up, as we lost four in a row toward the end of the regular season, but we understand that we’re still the same team. We just executed poorly late, or whatever the case may be,” said Washington, who leads the team with 16.3 points per game and was second in the conference with a 3-point shooting percentage of 38.1.

The 91-88 loss to the Illini on Sunday hit hard, even though it didn’t hurt Ohio State’s seed, but staying in Indiana for what they hope is a multiple-week trip gave the Buckeyes a needed breather.

Third-leading scorer Justice Sueing celebrated his 22nd birthday on Monday, and players passed the time with card games, including Uno.

“We had a little fun,” Washington said. “It relaxed us.”

The Golden Eagles, who boast the nation’s leading scorer in guard Max Abmas, won’t be intimidated by stark difference in seed or the quality of the Buckeyes’ competition.

“We’re not going to let a number determine our vantage point,” coach Paul Mills said.

Hartford will need the same attitude and then some against No. 1 seed Baylor. Same goes for Colgate against No. 3 seed Arkansas.

There’s a Big Ten-record nine teams in this field, three of which were slotted in the South Region, which has all of its first-round matchups on Friday. The Oral Roberts-Ohio State and Wisconsin-North Carolina games will both be staged at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana, the home of No. 4 seed Purdue. The Boilermakers are in Indianapolis at Lucas Oil Field to play North Texas.

Other pairings are No. 5 seed Villanova against Winthrop, No. 6 seed Texas Tech against Utah State and No. 7 seed Florida against Virginia Tech.

Familiar surroundings sure won’t hurt for the No. 9 seed Badgers, and neither will that conference experience. They went only 4-10 against NCAA Tournament teams this season and lost six of their last eight games.

“You’ve just got to attack it head on and learn from it. Obviously we all wanted better results and more success, but I think the strength of our schedule has prepared us and gotten to this point,” coach Greg Gard said.

Wisconsin will also be well-prepped from Big Ten play for North Carolina’s size, which could change the way Gard handles the rotations. He has generally avoided having 6-foot-11 Nate Reuvers and 6-10 Micah Potter on the floor at the same time, though both seniors play an average of more than 20 minutes per game. Gard said he might put Reuvers and Potter together, given the Tar Heels often have two post players on the floor.

The Badgers need to do something to make sure they’re competitive on the glass. North Carolina has a plus-9.9 rebound margin that leads all NCAA Division I teams. Wisconsin has been outrebounded by an average of two boards per game.

“Obviously matchups throughout the year haven’t worked out the best that they could have when it comes to us both playing together, but it’s something that we’re excited about doing,” Potter said. “It’s something that we’re ready to do.”

2021 NCAA Tournament: Why Loyola-Chicago, Michigan St. are March Madness sleepers to watch

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Cinderella runs are undoubtedly one of the best parts of March Madness, even if they have virtually no shot to win the national championship. The only team outside of a top-three seed to win it all in the last two decades was UConn in 2014, a No. 7 seed, but underdogs such as Florida Gulf Coast, George Mason and VCU made themselves household names by stringing together upsets in March.

And although Final Four and national title game appearances are exceedingly rare, it is commonplace for lower-seeded teams to make long runs. From 2010 to 2019, an average of three teams seeded No. 8 or higher made the Sweet Sixteen. One made it to the Elite Eight per year. Only one year, 2019, saw just one of these sleepers make the Sweet Sixteen, so it’s a good bet multiple low seeds will win at least two games.

Whether you’re trying to spice up your bracket or simply looking for potential upsets to watch, it’s good to get familiar with the underdogs who could pull off some shockers in the 2021 tournament. 

Here are the teams seeded No. 8 or lower that could make a run over the coming weeks, with insight from those who cover the squads to discuss what makes them dangerous.

Loyola-Chicago – No. 8 seed, Midwest Region

This is a familiar name, isn’t it? Many will remember the Ramblers’ magical run to the 2018 Final Four as an 11-seed — especially because it introduced the world to Sister Jean — on the back of stingy defense and incredibly timely shooting.

Well, as you can probably tell from the seeding, this year’s team is better. That is mostly driven by its dominant defense: Loyola is the top team in the entire nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. They also give up the fewest points and free throw attempts.

This shows two desirable traits in a sleeper:

First, they are elite on one side of the ball, defense in this case.

Second, they control the pace of the game. It doesn’t matter how talented or athletic its opponents are, Loyola won’t let teams run it out of the gym. 

Combine those positives with their pedigree, the momentum they have as a regular season and conference champion and Porter Moser’s experience coaching a lower-seeded team deep into the tournament, and the Ramblers feel like the best bet of any sleeper to go on a surprise tear.

Ask the Expert: Shannon Ryan, reporter at the Chicago Tribune

“Overall, it’s Loyola’s defense. They’re top in the nation, they hold teams to just 55 points a game, they’ve held tons of teams to under 50 points and really slow teams down and get to them. Lucas Williamson is the Defensive Player of the Year in the Missouri Valley Conference. They have a lot of the same qualities they had in 2018, but some people say they’re better. They’ve got maybe a little more size, and they’ve got some experience and some good shooters as well. So they could maybe surprise people yet again.”

Utah State – No. 11 seed, South Region

Eleven-seeds bring a lot of value to the table. They have won two or more of their Round of 64 matchups in eight of the last ten tournaments, and 11 of the last 40 made at least the Sweet Sixteen. There are a few reasons why Utah State may be the next team to continue this recent trend.

This is another team that wins with defense. The Aggies boast the eighth-best adjusted defensive efficiency in the nation. A huge part of that is their ability to finish possessions on the glass; Utah State outrebounds teams by 10.3 boards per game, second in the nation to North Carolina. They are well-rounded in this regard, too, winning both the offensive and defensive rebounding margin by around five per game.

Center Neemias Queta is a legitimately frightening presence at the rim. He stands seven feet tall with a 7-foot-4-inch wingspan and ranks third in the nation with 3.2 blocks per game. He’s also the Aggies’ leading scorer and playing his best as of late, averaging 18 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks per game in the Mountain West Conference Tournament.

The Aggies showed they can beat good teams when they took down a No. 6 seed in San Diego State twice during the regular season. Don’t be shocked if toppling Texas Tech is just the start of their tournament run.

Ask the Expert: Shawn Harrison, sports editor at The Herald Journal

“They have to have their complete game going, meaning offense and defense. They’ve got a known guy inside, a big guy that has been consistent all year. I think he will shine in the [2021] NCAA Tournament because he loves the big stage. So it really comes down to their guards. When Brock Miller can hit threes, they are a dangerous team, because it really opens up the court for the guys inside. I think they got better as the season went on, and they’re healthy.”

Michigan State – No. 11 seed, East Region

The First Four was solidified to two 11-seed and two 16-seed matchups in 2015. From that season through 2018, one 11-seed from the First Four won its Round of 64 game in each tournament. Call this a gut feeling, but I think the trend will return from a three-year hiatus.

This is a reputation and big-game results pick. Yes, Michigan State has Tom Izzo, and it’s always great to have a coach with a track record of success in the NCAA Tournament when trying to make a surprise run. 

But this is also a team that showed it can go blow for blow with the best teams in the nation down the stretch, scoring victories over No. 3 Illinois, No. 6 Ohio State and No. 4 Michigan in the final two weeks of the regular season.

Next to the murderers’ row of Big Ten competition they faced for much of the year, two games against a sputtering UCLA squad and the third-ranked No. 6 seed in BYU won’t look nearly as difficult to the Spartans. 

Led by older players in junior Aaron Henry, redshirt junior Joey Hauser and graduate student Joshua Langford, the Spartans have the experience to stay poised in critical situations. Izzo has led middling teams on tournament runs before, and the bracket is set up to give him an opportunity to do so again.

Ask the Expert: Chris Solari, Michigan State sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press

“It’s Tom Izzo and Aaron Henry. You’ve got the veteran experience as a coach, and you’ve got the type of player who does so many different things well when he’s playing within himself and can elevate guys around him to get to another level, as we saw over the last seven games of the regular season when they beat Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State. Ultimately, that’s it. When it comes down to it, those are gonna be the two guys that can get them into the second weekend of the tournament.”

Liberty – No. 13 seed, Midwest Region

This is a long shot that is entirely reliant on one thing: shooting. 

Liberty has the sixth-best mark from behind the arc in the nation and three players who shoot at least 40% from deep on 3.8 attempts or more per game in Darius McGhee, Chris Parker and Elijah Cuffey. If they get hot, the volume shooting could overwhelm a few higher-seeded opponents.

McGhee is certainly the type of player who could capture hearts in the “Big Dance.” He’s a 5-foot-9, 160-pound flamethrower who shoots 41.3% on eight 3-point attempts per game. Don’t be surprised if he has a few huge games on the biggest stage, as he did in leading the Flames to this year’s ASUN regular season and tournament championships.

Their 3-point shooting sounds like a great recipe for an upset or two, but there are a few reasons to be a bit skeptical of a run happening here. 

First: The likelihood of both first-round upsets and sustained runs goes sharply down after you look below No. 11 seeds

Second: Although the Flames do have good raw defensive numbers, playing in the ASUN doesn’t do their adjusted ratings any favors when projecting them against better opponents, especially in their matchup with Oklahoma State and likely top NBA Draft pick Cade Cunningham. 

But there is another factor in Liberty’s favor: The last time an NCAA Tournament was held, the Flames took down No. 5 seed Mississippi State by shooting 12-of-25 from three and limiting possessions. They did ultimately run out of gas against a No. 4 seed in Virginia Tech.

As was the case with Loyola-Chicago, this is a good approach for less talented teams looking to pull off a string of upsets. If you’re looking for a true dark horse, Liberty may be your team.

Ask the Expert: Jon Manson, founder of A Sea of Red

“I think it’s [coach] Ritchie McKay. His demeanor, the team really follows after him there. They have championship DNA, championship pedigree. They won’t be rattled when they’re down by two points with a minute left, you know that they’ve been there. McGhee’s the ultimate X-factor in my opinion, a five-nine guard who’s just been on a torid scoring pace the last month or so of the season. If he’s able to make five-plus 3-pointers in a game, they can beat anybody.”

Honorable Mentions: No. 8 LSU, No. 9 Wisconsin, No. 10 Maryland, No. 11 Syracuse, No. 12 Georgetown

No. 19 San Diego St. beats Utah St. 68-57 to win MWC title

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LAS VEGAS — San Diego State lost the last two Mountain West Tournament championship games to Utah State, and hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2018.

It was time to turn the tables Saturday.

Matt Mitchell scored 14 points to lead No. 19 San Diego State to a 68-57 victory over the Aggies to win the title and secure the league’s automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.

“I know the guys that were there last year definitely had it in mind,” said Mitchell, who was named the tournament’s MVP. “We kind of hoped that Utah State would be here so we could get our redemption.”

The Aztecs, who also won the regular-season championship, had lost six of their previous seven title game appearances.

It marked just the fifth time the No. 1 seed won the title in 22 years.

Nathan Mensah added 10 points and eight rebounds for the Aztecs, and Trey Pulliam also scored 10.

It marked the third straight tournament game the Aztecs had at least three players score in double figures. Six different players scored in double figures in the event, including Pulliam in all three games.

“Our depth was something that was important, and it paid off for us in the end,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher said. “I think we had fresh legs down the stretch cause we could rest players. Everybody that plays for us contributes and it’s a different player every night.”

Junior center Neemias Queta led the Aggies with 18 points, six rebounds, and three blocked shots. Justin Bean added 12 points and six rebounds.

San Diego State (23-4) snapped Utah State’s six-game winning streak, during which the Aggies (20-8) had allowed just 58.5 points per game. The Aztecs had their 58th point by the 5:53 mark of the second half.

Meanwhile, San Diego State held the Aggies to their second-lowest output of the season, 16.9 points below their season average of 73.9.

In a battle between the league’s two most stringent defenses, San Diego State exhibited its dominance with a 10-2 edge in steals. The turnover margin was seven, with Utah State committing 16 costly turnovers the Aztecs turned into 14 points.

Already having suffered a regular-season sweep by Utah State, the Aztecs wasted no time at distancing themselves from the second-seeded Aggies by using a 6-0 run to start the second half and take a 34-24 lead and never really looked back.

The first half was eerily similar to last year’s championship game, which saw the teams combine to shoot 19 of 58 (32%) in the first half while scoring 50 points. In this game, the teams were 21 for 57 (36.8%) and combined to score 52 pts in the first half.

Outside of Queta, the Aggies couldn’t get much going with their offense, as the 7-footer had 12 of the team’s 24 points. While Queta was 4 of 6 from the floor in the first 20 minutes, the rest of the Aggies were just 5 of 18 (27.7%) from the field. Utah State was also plagued with turnovers, committing eight under San Diego State’s tenacious defense.

“There’s just a play here and a play there that can just change the game,” Utah State coach Craig Smith said. “This time around they made just a few more of those than we did. A couple of catastrophic turnovers . we just jumped and threw it, and they get a steal and go the other way. Those are big time game-changers and momentum-changers.”

Though the Aztecs weren’t as offensively efficient as Utah State in the first half, hitting just 12 of 33 (36.4%), they got better balance with six shooters contributing on the stat sheet.

With the loss, the Aggies now await their fate for a bid into the NCAA Tournament. Though Utah State has looked every bit like a team that deserves a bid, there’s never a guarantee with the selection committee as the Mountain West has been a conference denied at-large bids mainly due to its lack of Quad 1 wins. The Aggies have just two Quad 1 wins and one Quad 2 victory. It also has its two regular season wins over San Diego State.

“The top of this league is very strong,” Dutcher said. “Hopefully were a multi-bid league. But I know when those doors close and they get in that room, over the years the Power of 5s have won the day. Hopefully that changes tomorrow.”

BIG PICTURE:

Utah State: The Aggies came into the game ranked 22nd in the nation with 12.6 offensive rebounds per game, and with 136 more boards on the offensive glass than their opponents. Saturday they finished with 12.

San Diego State: Saturday marked the fifth time this season Mensah had at least eight points and eight rebounds. It was the first time he had accomplished the feat since Feb. 8.

UP NEXT

Utah State: Hopes for an NCAA Tournament bid

San Diego State: NCAA Tournament

Mountain West to begin conference schedule in December

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The Mountain West Conference will play an 18-game basketball schedule, starting in late December.

The season will begin on Dec. 29 and conclude March 6, according to a news released issued Friday.

Each team will play nine home games and make nine road trips, with individual schedules to be released later.

The conference tournament will be held March 10-13 in Las Vegas.

Utah State won last year’s Mountain West tournament by defeating San Diego State in the title game, just before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The NCAA pushed back the start of the 2020-21 basketball season to Nov. 25 due to the pandemic.