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(Kim Raff | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah State University players (from left) Danny Berger, Morgan Grim, and Ben Clifford fight for a rebound with Mercer player Bud Thomas during the CIT Championship game at Utah State University in Logan, Utah on March 28, 2012. Mercer went on to win the game 67-70.
College hoops preview: Aggies shooting for return to NCAAs
Men’s basketball » Key players back, but Mountain West will be challenging.
First Published Nov 05 2013 03:01 pm • Last Updated Feb 14 2014 11:37 pm

Logan • It was years ago, but Jarred Shaw still holds the memories dear.

The NCAA Tournament. The fans. The pageantry. The thrill of being on college basketball’s biggest stage.

At a glance

USU men’s basketball schedule

All times Mountain

Friday USC, 7 p.m.

Nov. 12 Southern Utah, 7 p.m.

Nov. 16 at UC Santa Barbara, 8 p.m.

Nov. 23 Mississippi State, 7 p.m.

Nov. 26 at Weber State, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 30 BYU, 7 p.m. (at EnergySolutions Arena)

Dec. 7 Pacific, 7 p.m.

Dec. 14 Utah Valley, 7 p.m.

Dec. 19 Western Illinois, 8 p.m.

Dec. 20 UC Santa Barbara, 8 p.m.

Dec. 21 Troy, 8 p.m.

Dec. 28 San Diego Christian, 7 p.m.

Jan. 1 at Air Force, 6 p.m.

Jan. 4 San Jose State, 7 p.m.

Jan. 11 at Nevada, 6 p.m.

Jan. 15 Colorado State, 7 p.m.

Jan. 18 at Boise State, 7 p.m.

Jan. 22 at UNLV, 9 p.m.

Jan. 25 San Diego State, 9 p.m.

Jan. 28 New Mexico, 9 p.m.

Feb. 1 at Wyoming, 4 p.m.

Feb. 5 Nevada, 7 p.m.

Feb. 8 Boise State, 4 p.m.

Feb. 11 at Colorado State, 7:15 p.m.

Feb. 15 UNLV, 2 p.m.

Feb. 18 at San Diego State, 9 p.m.

Feb. 22 Fresno State, 7 p.m.

Feb. 25 at New Mexico, 7 p.m.

March 1 at San Jose State, 6 p.m.

March 5 Wyoming, 8 p.m.

Utah State primer

Best case » A championship is a long shot, but a top-three finish in the Mountain West is possible if the Aggies take care of business at the Spectrum. That likely earns a trip to the Big Dance, too.

Worst case » Will the Mountain West’s talent be totally overwhelming? If it is, Utah State could sink toward the bottom tier and break its 14-year streak of 20-win seasons against a tough conference slate.

Watch out for » Frontcourt depth. Ben Clifford’s injury aggravates an already pressing issue. With three true power forwards and two available centers, foul trouble will be a nuisance to Utah State’s bigs.

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When he went, he was at Oklahoma State, merely a backup for the Cowboys. It would mean much more if the 6-foot-11 senior could help lead his Utah State team there this year.

"That’s our main goal: to get to the tournament," he said. "If we work hard and do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll get there."

Under Stew Morrill, Utah State has cultivated a reputation as a midmajor that consistently gets to college basketball’s biggest postseason event. How strange is it, then, that the only Aggies to ever play in an NCAA Tournament game are Shaw and Preston Medlin?

With 14 straight 20-plus-win seasons at their back, the Aggies are looking to once again draw an invitation to the NCAAs this year. But that’s going to be a tougher feat considering they’ve landed in one of the nation’s toughest conferences.

"I feel like everybody has been working on their game," Shaw said. "We all know we’re in for a shock."

The Mountain West sent five teams to the NCAA Tournament last year, a step up from the Western Athletic Conference’s one. The conference schedule is dotted with perennial powerhouses: New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV among them, and the Aggies will have to play each of them twice.

Still, Utah State’s latest group has undeniable potential now that the team is healthy again. Medlin, Danny Berger and Sean Harris have each returned from season-ending injuries. The hot-shooting Medlin and the versatile Berger should be huge addition to a group that fought through adversity last year.

Shaw should be one of the centerpieces on offense after averaging 14.2 points and 8.4 rebounds per game last season and tightening up his practice habits. Spencer Butterfield, the gritty guard who provided leadership after Medlin went down last year, also comes back as a tireless physical player who can score and rebound.

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Other returners Utah State expects to improve include point guards Marcel Davis and TeNale Roland, as well as reserve center Jordan Stone. Utah State is also excited about newcomers Jalen Moore and Kyle Davis at the forward spots: Moore’s range and versatility give him huge upside, while Davis could be an immediate impact rebounder and inside scorer.

How the team gets along is one of the more encouraging signs to Medlin.

"We’ve got good team chemistry, and we all like each other," he said. "We’ve just got to focus, practice every day, and there’s no limit to what this team can do."

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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