Logan • There’s no telling how quickly they’ll mesh, how swiftly they’ll be able to execute everything thrown at them in this new era of basketball in Logan. But ask around and you’ll find out the Utah State Aggies are ready for the real deal. It’s been seven months since new head coach Craig Smith took over, tasked with implementing a new style, a new look, a new energy.
“It’s impossible to know what’s going to happen with so many new guys, but I’m really confident in our system and I’m really confident in the culture that we have, meaning how hard we’re going to play, how tough-minded we’re going to be, how together we’re going to be,” said junior guard Sam Merrill. “That can make up for a lot of the inexperience that we do have.”
These Aggies are young. They return four players who started off and on a year ago, but they’re pups. All in all, there are five freshmen and four sophomores on this team that ushers in Smith’s time on the sidelines. They return Merrill, an all-Mountain West Conference selection from a year ago, who averaged 16.3 points per game and drilled 98 3-pointers a season ago; that’s the second-most in Aggies history.
Also back are senior forwards Quinn Taylor and Dwayne Brown Jr., as is junior guard Diogo Brito.
After that? Lots of youngsters and lots of unknowns.
UTAH STATE FORECAST
The Aggies will succeed if: Sam Merrill continues to score and shoot the ball lights out and helps a young, talented team along quickly. The plethora of sophomores and freshman must help out Merrill, Taylor and Brown Jr. in order to have a shot.
The Aggies won’t succeed if: A very young team fails to get going early. In a new system under a new head coach, it’s crucial for the young USU players to get a taste of success and get a feel for a rowdy Spectrum home court early on.
Bottom-line: It’s a tall climb for Craig Smith and Co. in Year 1. The MWC is top-heavy with a few teams capable of making NCAA Tournament runs. Merrill remains part of the conference’s elite, but in order to make a dent, a youngster or two must rise.
“I like that,” Smith said. “As a coach, sometimes, I think it’s a refreshing thing to play young guys because they’re going to have to play and make an impact for us.”
The Aggies were recently picked ninth out of 11 MWC teams in the preseason media poll. Life in the MWC hasn’t been a breeze for USU. In fact, it has been a rough adjustment. Only once since entering the league in 2013 has the team finished with a conference record above .500. Enter Smith, who was hired in March, after an impressive five-year run at South Dakota.
He said the Aggies have made lots of headway in preseason practices.
“I love the strides that we’ve made,” he said. “We’ve had great buy-in and our chemistry is really, really good right now. Part of that is everybody thinks they’re going to play 30 minutes a game, but you have to see the big picture, you’ve got to surround yourself with great people.”
Merrill concurs with his new head coach. He has appreciated how player-friendly the system is. It allows players freedom to take advantage of mismatches and play to their strengths. But it all starts defensively, and with a fervor that’s demanded of every player on the floor.
“He is a very, very high-level coach in my mind. I think he understands all the little aspects of the game,” added Merrill. “He understands that there are so many opportunities in college, every possession counts. Obviously people know he’s very energetic, he’s very competitive.”
Like his players, Smith is eager for the first real jump ball. He’s had enough of his guys going head-to-head in practice after practice. He wants to get a taste of MWC basketball and see how the foundation laid this year can help in the near future.
“It’s big boy basketball,” he said. “You better be able to recruit some guys and play some guys that really know how to play and can really go blow-for-blow with that kind of competition.”
UTAH STATE SCHEDULE
All Times Mountain
Tuesday — at Montana State, 7 p.m.
Friday — Hartford, 7 p.m.
Nov. 13 — Mississippi Valley State, 7 p.m.
Nov. 16 — Utah Valley, 7 p.m.
Nov. 19 — Saint Mary’s at Las Vegas, 6:30 p.m.
Nov. 21 — Arizona State or Mississippi State at Las Vegas TBD
Nov. 28 — Northern Iowa, 7 p.m.
Dec. 1 — UC Irvine, 8 p.m.
Dec. 5 — at BYU, 7 p.m.
Dec. 8 — Weber State at Salt Lake City, 2:30 p.m.
Dec. 15 — Alabama State, 7 p.m.
Dec. 20 — at Houston, 6 p.m.
Dec. 28 — Eastern Oregon, 7 p.m.
Jan. 2 — at Nevada, 9 p.m.
Jan. 5 — Air Force, 7 p.m.
Jan. 9 — Fresno State, 7 p.m.
Jan. 12 — at Wyoming, 4 p.m.
Jan. 16 — at San Jose State, 8 p.m.
Jan. 19 — Colorado State, 7 p.m.
Jan. 26 — at New Mexico, 2 p.m.
Jan. 30 — San Jose State, 7 p.m.
Feb. 2 — UNLV, 2:30 p.m.
Feb. 5 — at Fresno State, 8:30 p.m.
Feb. 9 — at San Diego State, 8 p.m.
Feb. 13 — Wyoming , 7 p.m.
Feb. 16 — at Air Force, 2 p.m.
Feb. 20 — New Mexico, 9 p.m.
Feb. 23 — at Boise State, 2 p.m.
Feb. 26 — San Diego State, 7:30 p.m.
March 2 — Nevada, 6:30 p.m.
March 5 — at Colorado State, 7 p.m.
March 13-16 — Mountain West Tournament at Las Vegas.