At Colorado State, Stew Morrill played New Mexico, Wyoming, San Diego State and UNLV every year in the old Western Athletic Conference.
Although it has been 16 years since Utah State’s venerable coach was with the Rams, he remembers the packed arenas and gritty competition readily. With that in mind, Morrill didn’t it take it as an insult that his Aggies were picked to finish in the middle of the pack in their first season against those programs in the Mountain West.
“It’s very exciting but very challenging at the same time,” Morrill said Tuesday at Mountain West media days. “We’re not expecting to just waltz in to this conference.”
Utah State was picked to finish fifth in a preseason media poll released Tuesday morning, winding up behind some of the Mountain West’s premiere programs. New Mexico, last year’s regular season and tournament champion, was picked to repeat, and star Lobos guard Kendall Williams was voted to again win conference player of the year.
In all, the Aggies are looking up at UNLV and Boise State (tied for second) and San Diego State (a close fourth) ahead of them. Colorado State was sixth, with Wyoming, Fresno State and Nevada landing behind the Rams in succession. Air Force and fellow newcomer San Jose State were picked at the bottom of the standings.
On a six-man preseason all-Mountain West team, no Aggies made the cut. With Williams, the team also included New Mexico center Alex Kirk, Boise State guards Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks, Nevada guard Deonte Burton, and UNLV forward Khem Birch.
San Diego State’s Josh Davis was picked to be the preseason Newcomer of the Year, while UNLV guard Kendall Smith was slotted as the preseason freshman of the year.
The poll was an indication of just how tough the conference competition will be: Utah State was predicted to win the WAC last season by the media. Morrill wasn’t surprised by the fifth-place prediction, saying that Utah State needs to play well this season if it wants to earn more respect.
“We’ve got to prove that we’re competitive first and if we prove that, we have to prove we can contend and try and be a team that’s up with the top of the league,” Morrill said. “You’ve got to be competitive before you can be a contender.”
The Aggies return four starters this season, and have five seniors. Preston Medlin, Jarred Shaw and Spencer Butterfield each have earned all-WAC honors in their careers at Utah State.
One area Morrill does believe the Aggies stack up already? Their fans.
The coach paid some lip service to Utah State’s Spectrum when tackling questions about his program’s atmosphere.
“We have about 4,000 students for every home game, and they fill those seats up — they are right to the edge,” he said. “Our students are very clever, very loud, and they set the whole tone for the whole arena. It’s a marvelous place to play college basketball.”
Mountain West preseason poll
Note • First-place votes in parenthesis
1. New Mexico (23) 263
T2. UNLV (1) 214
T2. Boise State 214
4. San Diego State 212
5. Utah State 156
6. Colorado State 142
7. Wyoming 112
8. Fresno State 96
9. Nevada 84
10. Air Force 61
11. San José State 30
Preseason All-Mountain West
• Anthony Drmic, Jr., G/F, Boise State
• Derrick Marks, Jr., G, Boise State
• Deonte Burton, Sr., G, Nevada
• Alex Kirk, Jr., C, New Mexico
• Kendall Williams, Sr., G, New Mexico
• Khem Birch, Jr., F, UNLV