Huskies and Aggies set to face off in Columbus
One of the better No. 8 vs. No. 9 matchups will be played on Friday as the Washington Huskies and the Utah State Aggies are set to face off against each other. The Huskies (26-8) are coming off of a loss to Oregon in the championship game of the Pac-12 Tournament while the Aggies (28-6) won the Mountain West Tournament to extend their winning streak to 10 in a row.
Washington made it all the way to the final game of the Pac-12 Tournament but the Huskies have had their issues recently. They are just 4-3 over their last seven games with all of those wins coming by no more than five points. But Washington doesn't lack for talent as the team features Pac-12 Player of the Year Jaylen Nowell as well as the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, Matisse Thybulle.
Meanwhile Utah State is in the midst of a 17-1 run that has the Aggies in the polls for the first time since the 2010-11 season. This also is the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011.
Midwest Region: No. 8 Washington Huskies (26-8) vs. No. 9 Utah State Aggies (28-6)
Time: 6:50 p.m. p.m. ET (Friday)
Where: Nationwide Arena (Columbus, Ohio)
Keys for Washington
To keep up with Utah State's high-powered offense, the Huskies will need to force turnovers and protect the rim. They have forced 99 more turnovers more than they've committed. Washington also is averaging nearly six blocked shots per game (5.7), good for second in the nation.
On offense, everything flows through guard Jaylen Nowell, who is averaging 16.2 points per game while shooting 50 percent from the field overall and 44 percent from 3-point range. As Nowell goes, so do the Huskies. In the Pac-12 Tournament title game loss to Oregon, Nowell managed just eight points while going 2-for-8 from the floor. As a team, Washington will need to find more offense. The Huskies finished the regular season ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring at 69.8 points per game. The Huskies themselves finished the regular season 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring at 70.5 points per game. Utah State has scored fewer than 71 points just seven times this season.
Keys for Utah State
The Aggies want to win with their up-tempo offense as they are tied for 39th in the country at 79.1 points per game. One of the ways they generate offense is by spreading the ball around. Utah State is ninth in the nation at 17.1 assists per game.
The Aggies are led by Sam Merrill, who averages 21.2 points and 4.2 assists per game and was named Mountain West Player of the Year. The junior guard has taken his play to another level recently, as he has averaged 27.2 points per game over the last five contests, including Utah State's championship run in the conference tournament.
Looking at the matchup on paper, most would discount Utah State because of its so-called mid-major profile coming out of the Mountain West Conference. But the Aggies have the talent to not only beat Washington but to make a Cinderella run during the NCAA Tournament.
Utah State is an impressive 29th in the NET ranking. The Aggies went 3-2 against Quadrant 1 opponents, 2-3 versus Quadrant 2 foes and 22-1 against everybody else on their schedule. So playing a team like Washington will not faze the Aggies at all.
This game will come down to if the Huskies can slow down Utah State's offense. Given the teams' resumes heading into the NCAA Tournament, that appears to be tough task for Washington.
Final Score: Utah State 77, Washington 69
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.