Key Returners: Sam Merrill, Neemias Queta, Brock Miller, Abel Porter, Justin Bean, Diogo Brito
Key Losses: Quinn Taylor
Key Newcomers: Alphonso Anderson, Roche Grootfaam, Kuba Karwowski, Carson Bischoff, Sean Bairstow, Liam McChesney
Outlook: When the legendary Stew Morrill relinquished his throne back in 2015, the Utah State basketball program’s foundational strength was put to the test. Morrill was a coaching constant in college basketball for nearly two decades and propelled Utah State into a marquee mid-major brand name. Tim Duryea had the impossible task of filling Morrill’s shoes when he took over in 2015, and the Aggies effectively ran in place during his brief 3-year tenure. The athletic department then called upon Craig Smith to get the program out of neutral, but most thought it would take time for the former South Dakota head honcho to get his footing under him.
Smith scoffed at those tepid expectations. Rather, his Aggies went Tasmanian Devil through the Mountain West and nearly outlasted Nevada for the outright conference crown – though, I’m sure ‘co-conference champions’ will look just fine etched in the Dee Glen Smith Center rafters.
Craig Smith brings a new meaning to the word ‘intensity’. His passion on the sidelines shines through in his players, who wear their emotions proudly on their sleeves. This profound fervor acts as an amplifier to one of the loudest home crowds in all of college basketball (Spectrum Magic!), so it’s no surprise the Aggies were a wrecking ball at home last season.
Right behind ‘intense’ on the list of Utah State’s most redeeming character traits is ‘unselfish’. There’s no more telling statistic than the fact that 62% of USU’s field goals were assisted last year, the 5th highest rate in the country. There’s an old adage that the most open man in basketball is the man setting the screen, a principle Smith clearly holds near and dear to his heart. ‘Screen the screener’ action is littered throughout Utah State’s half-court offense, which puts the target defender in a pickle by forcing him to help on the first screen and then quickly recover to his man running off the second screen.
In the clip below, Nevada tries to switch the initial dive screen to the block but a miscommunication leaves Brock Miller (#22) wide open on the wing. This type of confusion is commonplace for opposing defenses trying to keep tabs on Utah State’s flurry of off-ball movers and cutters.
On the rare occasion the Aggies don’t generate an open look out of their primary offense, they turn to one of the most reliable late shot clock safety valves in the nation: reigning MWC Player of the Year Sam Merrill. In an offense that’s mostly propped up by a surgical system, Merrill is the lone perimeter playmaker capable of bending the defense without aid. He doesn’t have gamebreaking speed, but his patience, size and crafty change of pace help him create the space he needs. Merrill’s pull-up game is deadly, so opposing defenders are forced to squeeze his air space, especially coming off ball screens. If they sag off, Merrill will let it fly without hesitation. But if they pinch up too hard, he’ll knife his way into the lane, where he shows off an impressive repertoire of midrange floaters and finishes at the rim.
As special as Merrill was last season, I’d argue he was the second most important puzzle piece behind Neemias Queta, the ‘Portuguese Paint Protector’. After committing to play for Utah State early last summer, it was up in the air whether or not Queta would even suit up last season. While playing for the Portuguese national team, the Aggies anxiously awaited the NCAA’s ruling on his eligibility. Ultimately, Queta was cleared to go, which armed Utah State with one of the most dominant rim protectors in the country. The graphic below from hooplens.com reveals just how pivotal Queta was for Utah State’s interior defense, as opponent’s shot 10% worse from inside the arc when he was on the floor:
*EDIT: Queta injured his knee in the U20 FIBA European Championships in late July, but preliminary diagnosis was encouraging. Per the tweet below, a torn meniscus was ruled out of the equation.
Merrill is the offensive engine, Queta is the defensive anchor and the rest of the returning veterans round out what shapes up to be a clear-cut top-6 in the rotation. Former walk on Abel Porter solidified the secondary guard spot last season, proving to be effective as a co-initiator of the offense alongside Merrill. Like Merrill, he won’t blow anyone away with his quickness – in fact, it’s this limitation that somewhat hindered him against higher end competition last season – but Porter’s basketball IQ is off the charts and more than compensates for his lack of lateral burst.
The aforementioned Miller, a 6’6 wing, deserves an Oscar for his outstanding performance in a supporting role last year. The rising sophomore blossomed into one of the most precise catch-and-shoot threats in the Mountain West. His 3PA to 2PA ratio (191 3s compared to 62 2s), along with his league leading 7.9% turnover rate, encapsulates his mold as a long range specialist. Diogo Brito, a deadeye shooter and disruptive wing defender, will likely spell Miller at the 3, a ‘copy-paste’ of the sixth man role he played last season.
Quinn Taylor is the only key contributor from last year who needs to be replaced, but rising sophomore Justin Bean is waiting in the wings to seize that final starting spot. Bean was in and out of the lineup for the first few months of the season, but had his coming out party against San Diego State on February 26th. In 27 minutes off the bench, the fiery freshman delivered with 10 points and 8 boards and the coaching staff quickly took notice. From there on out, Bean morphed into an instant spark plug for the Aggies off the bench, routinely making winning play after winning play. Bean is the consummate glue guy and a tailor-made fit at the 4 next to Queta in the front court.
With such a stout top-6 in tact, it’s hard to see any of the newcomers making a major splash, but Queta wasn’t even on our radar as a potential impact guy this time last season. Smith has an eye for finding diamonds in the rough on the recruiting trail, especially when targeted at guys who can fill a need in his system, so don’t be surprised to see one of the newcomers make a name for themselves early on. Of all the newcomers, Alphonso Anderson is the one I’m betting on to make some waves this year, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Anderson had a cup of coffee with Montana in 2016-17 before a knee injury forced him to redshirt, but he’s back in the D1 ranks after spending a year on the JUCO circuit. As a plus athlete with good size (6’7, 230 pounds), Smith views him as a potential defensive stopper on the wing who can slide up and down the lineup and check multiple positions.
Bottom Line: Few coaches’ stocks are rising as quickly as Craig Smith right now and with a veteran laden roster back in the fold, there’s no question the Aggies are the favorite to defend their Mountain West conference title belt. An impending return trip to the NCAA Tournament seems likely, but Utah State must do some damage in the non-conference to avoid over leveraging themselves on running the table in league play. With the top of the conference likely taking a step back - Nevada and Fresno State specifically - the MWC will offer fewer opportunities for resume boosting wins. With minimal roster turbulence this summer, expect the Aggies to come out guns blazing when the season commences, which should put them in prime position to start building a strong at-large resume from the get go.