USU Men’s Basketball: Move to the Mountain West won’t be easy
Published: July 2, 2012 11:20PM
Updated: July 12, 2012 05:42PM
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Utah State basketball coach Stew Morrill

Logan • At first glance, it looks pretty promising for the Utah State men’s basketball program is it prepares to enter the Mountain West Conference in 2013.

Assuming attrition doesn’t hit the Aggies following this upcoming season, Stew Morrill could walk into the new league with arguably the deepest and most talented team of his USU coaching career.

As a team, the Aggies are on track to have everything needed to make a splash in its new league. Size and depth at every position. A true star in Preston Medlin. Senior leadership, and a coach waiting to put it all together and make it work.

Now, the sobering news: Even with everything the Aggies could have going their way, winning the MWC, or even contending for a title, will be a huge challenge.

UNLV and New Mexico are both established national brands, with heavy-hitting recruiting classes and home courts recognized as two of the tougher places to play in the country. Colorado State now has Larry Eustachy, the former Utah State head coach and one of the better recruiters in the nation. And Utah State knows firsthand how difficult it is to play Nevada on a yearly basis.

“The basketball league is top drawer right now,” Morrill said. “It was ranked in the top five in the RPI last season. When you start comparing football and basketball, you start with New Mexico and Vegas, and you can see how good the league is.”

Utah State will play a final season in the Western Athletic Conference, where it will be favored to win one last title, and possibly advance to the NCAA Tournament. Even with the competition expected to be much stiffer in the Mountain West, there will be obvious advantages in making the switch from the WAC.

As one of the better mid-major programs in the country, Morrill traditionally had a difficult time getting good teams to play the Aggies in the Spectrum, one of the most hostile college basketball buildings in the nation for opposing teams.

That led to strength of schedule issues, and ultimately seeding issues when Utah State did advance to the NCAAs. Indeed, a 30-4 team in 2011, which dominated the regular season and sported a road win over St. Mary’s garnered only a number 12 seed in the Tournament.

USU’s move to the MWC figures to alleviate that problem. This past year, the Mountain West placed four teams in the tournament, and was recognized as the best league in the West.

“Having Utah State in the conference greatly lessons the blow of losing San Diego State,” UNLV Athletics Director Jim Livengood said. “I believe that they can come in and compete right away with anyone. The staff is great, and anyone who has played against Stew Morrill knows that it won’t be an easy time of it. Utah State is going to help the Mountain West and the Mountain West is going to help Utah State. This is the perfect marriage.”

The question now: Can the Aggies can start recruiting Mountain West-caliber athletes? Players like the Rebels and the Lobos are reeling in?

UNLV made a huge splash in the recruiting world this spring, reeling in Anthony Bennett and Khem Birch, along with Roscoe Smith and Savon Goodman. Bennett and Birch are McDonald’s All-Americans, and are considered legitimate NBA prospects.

The Aggies, in 2013, will have Sky View’s Jalen Moore and Minnesota seven-footer Carson Shanks on the roster. Moore is seen as someone the Aggies need to compete, a 6-foot-8 small forward with the athleticism to counter what MWC foes will be putting on the court.

But it still won’t be easy, no matter how rosy the roster looks. While the Utah State football team, with the loss of Boise State to the Big East, will look to win a wide-open Mountain West in its first year, the basketball team will have to grind every night.

“It’s going to be a good senior year,” Medlin said. “That’s for sure.”

tjones@sltrib.com

on twitter: @tonyaggieville

Projected USU lineup 2013

Point guard: Tenale Roland/Marcel Davis

Shooting guard: Preston Medlin

Small forward: Spencer Butterfield

Power forward: Jarred Shaw

Center: Matt Lopez

Utah State is projected to lose just one player after the 2012 season, power forward Kyisean Reed