Basketball

Q&A w/ Jason Walker of The Utah Statesman about Texas Tech vs Utah State (March Madness)

Swany: Tell us a little about the journey of Utah State to the at large bid to March Madness… 

Jason: The Aggies had a rough start to the season. Their schedule was tough and the team had eight newcomers, two of them in the starting lineup. They started the season 1-3, though two of those losses were to teams now in the NCAA Tournament. After that start, USU went on an 11-game win streak, blowing out most of their opponents. Among those wins were two against the now 6-seed San Diego State and one win against Colorado State, one of the first four out. That win streak formed the core of Utah State’s resume. In January and early February, the Aggies stumbled with losses to Colorado State, UNLV and two against Boise State. These losses, especially to UNLV, had most bracketologists placing USU among the first four out, but a second-place finish in the Mountain West standings and an appearance in the conference tournament final seemed to push them comfortably into at-large bid territory since not only did they get in, but they weren’t among the committee’s last four in.

Swany: Defense is the major storyline of this game, with both teams being beasts against opposing offenses. Tech struggles on offense during stretches, and it seems there might be some weaknesses in the Aggies game on the same end of the floor. What is the biggest weakness with the Utah State squad on the floor that most concerns you?

Jason: Offense is definitely the weakness of this Utah State team. Give them a top 50 offense and they might be an Elite Eight or Final Four team with how great their defense is. Alas, it’s not to be. Utah State’s offense has looked good at times against bad teams, but when the rhythm is off, there’s no one on the team who can get them back in rhythm. Their perimeter players are either too young to be developed on offense (Rollie Worster, Steven Ashworth, Max Shulga) or just aren’t consistent enough (Marco Anthony, Brock Miller). Also, no one on the team is a reliable 3-point shooter, which allows teams to clog the paint and double Neemias Queta without much fear of being burned by a 3-pointer. When everything’s rolling, Utah State can put up points in a hurry, but it requires everything to be in place and that’s a rare occurrence for any team at this time of year.

Swany: The name most frightening to my Red Raiders on the USU side is Neemias Queta. We do not have a strong frontcourt with height or length. Tell us about Queta, and what to expect against a smaller Texas Tech team…

Jason: Expect to see Texas Tech go all-in on limiting Queta’s offense, and getting around him on defense. He is a daunting force in the paint on both ends of the court and right now he’s playing the best basketball of his career. Over the last nine games, he’s averaging 20.6 points, 12.0 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game. He’s also on a remarkable run of good free-throw shooting. Normally a mid-60s guy at the line, in the last nine games Queta’s making just under 83 percent of his freebies. And we haven’t even gotten to the best part of Queta’s game: his defense. As a rim protector, it’s hard to find a better one in the entire country. Queta leads the nation in Defensive Win Shares, is second in Defensive Box Plus/Minus and is fourth in blocks per game. Bleacher Report named Queta the Defensive Player of the Year for likely these very reasons.

Swany: Craig Smith is 74-23 in his three years with USU basketball. He has won 20 or more games each season. Smith has been highly successful, what attributes does he bring in leading this program to such success?

Jason: Craig Smith simply brought life back to Aggie basketball. He inherited a team that went 17-17 and, with only one major roster change, won a share of the regular season conference title his first year and got USU its highest NCAA Tournament seed in program history. His energy is what sticks out the most to people, but what’s changed the team the most is that Smith makes sure his teams do the little things at an elite level. They defend the paint, they rebound, and they attack the paint on offense. The base philosophy is simple, but it’s led USU to a great run the last three years.

Swany: Here we go, the real question… how do you feel this game will go and do you have a predicted outcome for this first round battle between Texas Tech and Utah State?

Jason: This game projects to be a not-suitable-for-TV game where both sides struggle to put up points. USU may have a size advantage inside, but Texas Tech should be able to scheme Queta out of having a big offensive night if they have a good enough gameplan and it’s unlikely any other Aggie will go crazy. And unless Texas Tech has a superb shooting night from the outside, I don’t see them scoring much. They’re already average at finishing at the rim and USU is in the top 20 in opponents field goal percentage at the rim. The key for this game if that scenario plays out will be rebounding, and USU has yet to be out-rebounded by any opponent this season. They’ve not only got one great rebounder in Queta, but another glass cleaner in Justin Bean.

Barring the unforeseeable, I just don’t see any way that it’ll be easy for TTU despite it being a 6/11 matchup. And in the NCAA Tournament, having the best player on the court can go a long way, and Utah State has the best player in this matchup. But I will say this: the last time USU played in the NCAA Tournament (2019) they faced a Washington team that was smaller and didn’t have a great rebounding record. I figured Queta, then a freshman and potential one-and-done prospect, would have a field day and the Aggies’ strong interior game would rule the day. Instead, the Huskies dominated the paint, stymied Queta and won comfortably. All of the things I would point to as strengths for Utah State in this matchup are things they had going for them against Washington in 2019.

Swany: Huge thank you from all of us here at Staking The Plains to Jason Walker from The Utah Statesman for taking the time to answer these questions for our Red Raider fans! You can follow him @jwalker_sports or go over to The Utah Statesman and check it out. Cannot wait for this game on Friday!

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