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Utah State basketball: Aggies ready to climb to Mountain West level

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(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State men's basketball coach Stew Morrill is heading into the biggest offseason of his USU career as the Aggies get ready to join the Mountain West Conference next season.

By Kyle Goon

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Mar 28 2013 02:09PM
Updated Mar 28, 2013 11:57PM

Logan • While the Utah State basketball team works out this offseason, they’ll have reminders of what they’re up against.

In the weight room, the team has posted the heights, weights and lifting statistics of every position of every team in the Mountain West. It will be a constant marker of how hard the Aggies have to push to stack up.

"We are well aware that it is a big step," USU coach Stew Morrill said. "We’ll find out if we’ve got the talent level and the coaching level and all that to compete in that league. Obviously that’s something that our guys are excited about."

Less than two weeks after the end to a season with a first-round WAC tournament exit, the transition has begun.

The Aggies are back in the weight room, getting ready to compete against the league that finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in RPI and sending five teams to the NCAA Tournament. The Mountain West has come under some fire for going 2-5 in the postseason and not getting any teams in the Sweet 16, but it’s still up the ladder from a one-bid Western Athletic Conference.

With the players they have, Utah State knows they’ll have to be better to contend for a conference title. The 21-10 year is almost distant now, the future challenges are much more pressing than ruminating on the past.

"My mindset is the season is over now," junior center Jarred Shaw said. "I’ll study film, work on my game and see what I can do to help the team win next year."

A lot of the spring will be getting the team healthy. Spencer Butterfield hopes to recover from hip surgery before school starts in the fall. Preston Medlin’s slow-healing wrist is coming along, as is Danny Berger’s health after his cardiac arrest in December. Sean Harris is looking to recover the ability he had before two ACL tears disrupted his career before it even started at Utah State.

For everyone who is healthy, the goal will be to get stronger. Competing against higher-level players will take its toll if Utah State is not physically ready to bang with programs like New Mexico, UNLV or San Diego State.

To a player such as the 220-pound Shaw, that call is a piercing one. He’s one of the Aggies who is working on Crossfit routines, body weight exercises and lifting to build his physique.

"I took a week off just to get my body right," he said. "But I’ve got to get a lot stronger, and be able to play defense against some of these guys."

Whereas the players had a flash of a break, coaches have virtually had none. March and April is recruiting season, time to start charging hard after the 2014 class, a critical step to getting the talent needed to survive. The Aggies are looking to fill holes for the power forward spot, one of the least deep positions on the team, and also looking for an heir apparent to Preston Medlin after he graduates next year.

The staff is also going to do video evaluations of each Mountain West program, poring through film for trends and tendancies, while also reflecting on what adjustments the Aggies need to make to be competitive.

Jumping conferences is not an unfamiliar process to Morrill, who took the team from the Big West to the WAC in 2005. Utah State made the NCAA Tournament field that year. But even Morrill is aware that this leap will stretch the Aggies a little more than last time. And coming off a season with so many injuries, Morrill is still feeling out where his program might wind up.

"Until we’ve played in that league, I don’t think we know exactly how our talent level stacks up," Morrill said. "You always gain a greater respect for the coaching in a league when you’re a part of it. I think we’ll learn as we go."

kgoon@sltrib.com

Twitter: @kylegoon

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