"I didn't want to get blocked," he quipped.
The former Bountiful High star might not fashion himself as a flashy player, but he's in the midst of making that hopeful transition USU head coach Tim Duryea hoped would come sooner than later. Merrill was rewarded with his first collegiate start against the Lobos Wednesday in Logan, where he put on the kind of display that justified the move, finishing with 13 points and those eight assists — a season high for any USU player.
Merrill got word Monday that he'd be replacing Rector in the starting lineup. He had 48 hours to stew over what would be his first start in nearly three years. His pregame routine didn't change, he said, because his role doesn't change. Starter or not, his goal is to find a flow in the game and be proactive. Duryea said he thought the Aggies (7-7, 1-2 MWC), then riding a three-game skid, needed a "change in the vibe."
"It's not like I've never started a basketball game," Merrill said. "It wasn't too big of a deal."
He returned from his LDS mission in Nicaragua last June. Duryea said Merrill came back overweight from his two years in Central America and needed to get back into basketball shape. When Merrill showed up in the fall fit and ready to roll, "that told me all I needed to know about Sam," Duryea said.
"Really from that point on, he's been ahead of the curve," the USU coach added. "He's such a smart player and has such a great feel for the game that once he kind of got used to being back on the court off his mission, he's been tremendous from Day 1."
USU senior Jalen Moore wasn't at all caught off guard by Merrill's play Wednesday or throughout the Aggies' first part of the season. The two used to tangle in the 4A playoff tournament when they were then friendly rivals. Moore still recounts the semifinal playoff game in which he drained a half-court shot at the buzzer to send Sky View by Merrill's Braves into the state title game.
"He had 35 points on us," Moore said. "This is nothing new for him. He's just a good ballplayer, a solid guy that you want on your team and he just makes plays for himself and for others. He just wants to win. That's what we need."