Can Utah State end 8-game tournament losing streak with a win against Missouri?

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LOGAN — At 5 a.m. Friday morning, a barrage of text message notifications interrupted the silence of Ryan Odom's Las Vegas Hotel room and woke him from his slumber.

As he picked up his phone, Utah State's head coach saw that in response to the Aggies' win over New Mexico in the Mountain West quarterfinal game the night prior that 20 former players and coaches from his time at UMBC had started a group chat to express their excitement.

For Odom, it's nostalgic to hear from his former players on the five-year anniversary of UMBC defeating Vermont in the American East championship game to reach the NCAA Tournament; and, more famously, the Retrievers becoming the first No. 16 seed in tournament history to beat a No. 1 seed.

It also indicates that he's up to something big again.

On Sunday afternoon, Utah State punched its ticket to the Big Dance as a No. 10 seed and will face No. 7 seed Missouri in Sacramento on Thursday (11:40 a.m. MDT, TNT). The Aggies have now qualified for the tournament in four of the last five years (they didn't play in 2020 due to COVID) and are set to make their 11th appearance since 2000.

"This team is confident, like that (UMBC) team," Odom said. "(The text messages) just reminded me of how special it is to be a part of a winning team and one that is fortunate to go to the NCAA Tournament."

In Odom's first trip back since his unprecedented win in 2018, he has a chance to make another splash with the Aggies.

Utah State is currently on an eight-game NCAA Tournament losing streak and hasn't won in the Big Dance since it beat Ohio State in 2001. Despite a number of conference championships and memorable regular-season victories, the 22-year drought looms over the program.

Against a Missouri team that is prone to giving up a lot of points is arguably the best chance the Aggies have had to break the streak in over a decade. Doing so would instantly make it one of the biggest wins in program history.

"Anytime you're fortunate to advance in the NCAA Tournament it's a special thing," Odom said. "It takes it a step higher. It's certainly something that these guys aspire to do. … It does a lot for the university, and it does a lot for the players."

"We talk a lot about in this program that pressure is a privilege, and playing in the tournament is pressure basketball; and that's what you want to be doing in March is playing basketball when it really matters," junior guard Steven Ashworth added. "So we have that goal to go out and get that first win in (22 years)."

Making the tournament itself meets the expectation Craig Smith set for the program when it qualified in 2019, 2020 and 2021. It's also evidence that those three seasons were not merely lightning in a bottle, propelled by an up-and-coming coach with two NBA draft picks in Sam Merrill and Neemias Queta. Rather, the culture of winning that the Aggies had during the Stew Morrill years appears to be back.

This season's three backcourt starters — Ashworth, Max Shulga and Sean Bairstow — played minimally under Smith as underclassman, but they've blossomed into elite scorers. Odom's staff proved it can out-recruit several Power Five programs by getting graduate forward Taylor Funk to transfer to Utah State over several other high level programs.

Being the only team in the state to secure a bid is the sweetener.

But if Odom wants to not only sustain the culture built by Stew Morrill and Craig Smith but to improve upon it, his team has to find a way to win in March. In his introductory press conference as Utah State's new coach in March 2020, Odom vowed one program goal would be to "advance in the NCAA Tournament."

Doing so on Thursday could heal some wounds within the program.

Former All-American Tai Wesley, who went 0-3 in the NCAA Tournament, admitted after his professional retirement in 2020 that those losses "still hurts."

Moments after hitting his memorable game-winning 3-pointer to beat San Diego State in the Mountain West championship game in 2020, Sam Merrill told CBS reporter Evan Washburn it was time to end the losing streak; COVID-19 canceled the tournament days later and he never got the chance. Merrill texted Odom on Saturday night, reminding him about the drought.

"No pressure," Odom joked.

Is winning the game feasible, though?

On paper, yes. Utah State is a 1.5-point favorite in most sportsbooks. The Tigers are 57th in KenPom, which is 39 spots behind the Aggies (18th). In adjusted defensive efficiency, Missouri is just 178th nationally and 10th in the SEC. Being 12th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and first in the Mountain West, the Aggies should be able to score on the Tigers.

Missouri is a No. 7 seed for a reason, though. Under first-year head coach Dennis Gates, the Tigers average 81.4 points per game (24th nationally) and boast wins over Tennessee. And 6-foot-8 senior guard Kobe Brown (15.8 points per game) will be difficult to contain.

"Coach Gates has done an awesome job in a very short amount of time as their coach and really established some winning ways," Odom said. "We realize it's going to be a tough matchup, but every game's hard once you get to the NCAA Tournament. … It's all about the matchup, who's playing well at the time, and then just how the game actually goes."

Odom said getting an at-large bid isn't easy, and it's an accomplishment for the program just to be there. With how sentimental Odom is, though, he certainly recognizes how big it would be for the program to beat Missouri on Thursday.

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