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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Utah State steamrolled the rest of the Western Athletic Conference with one of the best seasons in school history, winning the regular-season title by five games.
Now that it’s conference tournament time, another Aggies romp is coming up, right?
Possibly. It’s just that Utah State isn’t looking at it that way.
With an NCAA berth not quite a sure thing and so many close games during the season, the 23rd-ranked Aggies aren’t going to take any gambles on their trip to The Strip.
“It’s a one-week event where you have a chance to get the automatic berth and that’s the way we always approach it,” Utah State coach Stew Morrill said.
Led by WAC player of the year Tai Wesley and a talented group of seniors, Utah State (28-3, 15-1) set a school record for wins on the way to its fourth straight WAC regular-season title. The Aggies won 26 of their final 27 games, became the seventh team in the 49-year history of the conference to lose one league game or less and were ranked for seven straight weeks, their longest run since the 1970-71 team was in the polls for 11 straight weeks.
Utah State even has a signature win, beating Saint Mary’s by 10 on the road Feb. 19.
Still, there’s an uneasy feeling when teams from smaller conferences have to wait for an at-large bid from the NCAA tournament selection committee. Better to win the tournament and leave no doubt by getting the automatic bid.
So, even after a regular season that earned it a double bye into Friday’s semifinals, Utah State isn’t taking anything for granted. The tournament, which opens Wednesday at Orleans Arena with Hawaii facing San Jose State and Nevada against Fresno State, features numerous potential pitfalls for the Aggies — and they know it.
“We had a lot of close games in conference play and whoever we play will definitely concern us,” Morrill said. “A lot of teams in our league are definitely capable of playing with us.”
Idaho won 10 games this season, its most since 1994, and handed Utah State its first conference loss in 26 games, 64-56 on Feb. 9. San Jose State has scoring machine Adrian Oliver, who is third in the nation at 24.3 points per game and can single-handedly keep the Spartans in games.
Utah State also had trouble against fifth-seeded Hawaii, needing double overtime to beat the Rainbow Warriors on Jan. 29, and scratched out a four-point win over third seed New Mexico State in the penultimate game of the season.
Boise State might present the biggest challenge.
The Broncos had a lopsided loss to Utah State in early February, but have been on a roll since, winning their final seven games to finish second in the WAC. Boise State, which also gets a double bye into the semifinals, ended up 19-11 under coach Leon Rice, the most wins in school history under a first-year coach.
“I do like the way we’re playing,” Rice said. “We’re playing with great energy and great enthusiasm.”