- Ky McKeon
Big things are happening out in Logan, Utah. Craig Smith’s Aggies have wildly exceeded preseason expectations thus far in non-conference play, amassing a 7-1 overall record with impressive wins over Saint Mary’s on a neutral floor and UC Irvine on the road. The record doesn’t tell the whole story though. Utah State is CRUSHING teams through the early going, winning games by an average margin of 24 points (this excludes the Aggies’ narrow loss to top 25 squad Arizona State). That average margin of victory has vaulted Utah State’s advanced metric rating – no team has moved up more spots in KenPom’s rankings than the Aggies’ 168 to 54. So how has a team picked to finish 9th in its own conference found so much success in the early going?
Everything begins with head coach Craig Smith, the first year Utah State skipper that previously spent four years at the helm of South Dakota. Smith came to Logan this offseason and immediately changed all we’ve recently known about Utah State basketball from the culture to the style of play. Without bashing former head coach Tim Duryea too much, the Aggies were a lost program for the three years following Stew Morrill’s departure and played a bland, unexciting brand of basketball. Smith has ramped up the tempo in year 1 (something he was known for at South Dakota) and has shifted USU from a three-point reliant offense to one that is in constant motion, attacks the basket, and looks to score in transition and on the block. The defensive mindset of the Aggie program has changed as well – USU has been lockdown defensively through eight games and is the 2nd best defensive rebounding team in the land by rate. You can spot a well-coached team by how well its players execute the fundamental parts of basketball – hustling, blocking out and talking on defense – and it’s clear Utah State is a well-coached team. Smith coaches with a passion that exudes through his players: it’s contagious and it’s highly effective. Just look at Smith on the sidelines during this possession – that is a coach that is INTO a basketball game:
Of course, it takes more than just active sideline antics to lead a winning team – hell, even Kevin Ollie was known to get down into a defensive stance every now and again. Winning consistently requires a mastery of the X’s and O’s, a field in which Smith also excels. As alluded to above, Smith’s offense consists of three key pillars: 1) transition, 2) constant motion, and 3) basket attack (drive, post, glass crash).
The most lethal part of USU’s offense is its ability to score in transition, especially off the defensive glass. Per Synergy, Utah State is scoring a blistering 1.24ppp in transition this season, which ranks in the 94th percentile in the country. Smith is selective when he wants his team to run: per Hoop-Math, USU ranks 48th in the country in %FGA 0-10 seconds following a defensive rebound but just 145th following an opponent turnover and 261st following an opponent score. USU’s dominance on the defensive glass, sparked by freshman Neemias Queta and senior Quinn Taylor, allows it to get consistent opportunities on the run following a miss. Here, a missed shot quickly turns into a three going the other way:
Having guys like Queta and Taylor on the interior is a luxury and allows the other three players to leak out and start the break early.
In the halfcourt, the first thing you’ll notice when watching the Aggies is the seemingly perpetual motion caused by perimeter and post players constantly flashing, cutting, and screening. Smith runs a variety of sets including a horns look with two bigs (setting up at each elbow) and a four-out look with Taylor on the perimeter or four guards surrounding Queta, but one factor remains the same: everyone is always moving. When firing on all cylinders, as it often has this year, Smith’s offense is a gorgeous sight to behold. Below is an example of this movement in action. The Aggies start in one of their typical “horns” sets with the forwards at either elbow. The ball is entered to Queta:
Sophomore guard Crew Ainge fades off a backscreen from the opposite elbow and catches the pass from Queta. Meanwhile, Sam Merrill prepares to land a back screen on Queta’s man:
At nearly the exact second the ball is skipped to Ainge, Merrill is in motion ready to plant a blockade on Queta’s defender, allowing the big man to slip to the basket for an easy look at two points:
The third pillar of Smith’s offensive scheme is basket attack by way of driving, posting up, and crashing the glass. Through eight games, USU ranks 13th in the country in %FGA near the rim (Hoop-Math). Players off the ball in the USU offense aren’t the only ones in constant motion – the ball handlers are as well. When a guard catches the ball off a screen, he immediately looks to shoot or attack the cup and oftentimes is aided by a ball screen. This action leads to a drive-and-kick game whereby shooters like Merrill and Ainge have thrived this season. Though the Aggies don’t shoot a ton of threes, they’re capable of knocking them down (38.4% on the year, 53rd in the country) which keeps would-be help defenders from coming over and stopping penetration. The drive-and-kick game is one of the few sources of USU three-point attempts: over 90% of the Aggies’ 3PFGM this season have been assisted.
Going hand-in-hand with the drive-and-kick game is the focus on pounding the ball in the post, most often through Queta. When Smith recognizes a mismatch in the post, like in the Saint Mary’s game, he exploits it. Queta is a skilled scorer on the block, but his ability to remain patient and either pass out of the post or allow cutters to play off him is essential to USU’s offensive success. Below is a beautiful example of two of USU’s offensive pillars at work. Queta works to get position and catches the ball on the block (notice the space created by the other Aggies, which leads to a one-on-one situation):
While Ainge enters the pass to the post, Taylor sets a back screen for shooting threat Brock Miller to keep the help-side defense occupied:
As soon as Ainge delivers the pass to Queta, he cuts off the big man leading to an open reverse layup at the cup:
Obviously this was a great cut by Ainge and awareness by Queta, but the action by the other three Aggies made this play possible. The screening action on the opposite side of the floor preoccupied would-be help defenders long enough for Ainge to slip to the hoop unguarded.
Finally we come to the last key factor of Utah State’s early season success: its defense. You’d have to go all the way back to 2011 to find an Aggie squad that ranked in the top 150 of KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. This season, Smith’s squad is 53rd and that number likely will continue to improve as preseason rankings become less of a driver. It should be noted that Smith also led South Dakota to its only two top 100 defensive seasons in the KenPom era.
The major keys to Smith’s defense are 1) communication and 2) Neemias Queta. The first key seems like an obvious factor, one that should be exhibited by every team in the country, but this simple “skill” is rarely put into practice by college basketball squads. Communication starts with the tone at the top – that GIF with Smith jumping up and down up top is par for the course of his antics on the sidelines. Watch any Aggie possession and you’ll see a bench that is engaged and yapping constantly throughout the team’s entire defensive stand. Communication is essential to guarding screens, blocking out, and defending cuts to the basket: effective teams are teams that talk to each other.
USU’s second key defensive factor is an individual: freshman center Neemias Queta. Queta was a late addition to the squad this offseason (he wasn’t even mentioned in my MWC preview, for which I should be tarred and feathered). Queta is a human eraser in the paint, ranking 24th in the country in block rate. His length and lateral quickness allow him to function as a safety valve when the defense breaks down. USU plays a disciplined style of defense, not gambling for steals and focusing instead on staying between ball and basket, but often perimeter defenders will overplay a ball handler or close-out hard on a shooter in order to funnel him into the outstretched arms of Queta. The freshman’s presence is a major reason the Aggies rank 3rd in the country in 2PFG% defense and 7th in eFG% defense. His shot blocking is game-changing and his ability to guard the pick-n-roll is crucial in USU’s effort to shut down playmakers. Here Queta successfully hedges two straight ball screens and stops the Gael guards from penetrating:
What I love about the second GIF above is the help defense from the two opposite side guards. They both collapse simultaneously to stop the roll man and sprint back to their respective men to close out on perimeter threats. Great coaching shows through the little things.
Utah State is a team to watch this season, one that will surely prove in due time that its hot start was not a fluke. Tough tests on the road against BYU and Houston await the Aggies before conference play begins, but you can bet Smith will have his squad ready for the challenge.