When he was introduced last spring, Craig Smith stood at the podium and told the Utah State faithful he was going to work his hands to the bone to get the Aggies back to prominence. It didn’t even take a full season in Logan, and on Tuesday afternoon, the USU men’s basketball program was recognized for its stellar 2018-19 season.
USU earned four of the six individual regular-season Mountain West Conference awards, including Coach of the Year for Smith, Player of the Year for junior guard Sam Merrill and a double honor for freshman center Neemias Queta, who was named both Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.
The Aggies (25-6, 15-3 MWC) earned a share of the MWC regular-season conference title with Nevada. They enter the MWC tournament this week in Las Vegas as the No. 2 seed. Picked to finish ninth in the preseason MWC polls, USU has exceeded expectation from the outside, but within, Smith and his staff knew they had potential.
“When you surround yourself with great people and when you win, the individual awards some of your guys have received or are going to receive, it’s because you win,” Smith said. “When you’re an average team or you’re a .500 team, there’s a lot of good players, but it’s a lot easier to be a good player on an average team than have the duress of every night going out and you have to be the best on a good team getting their best shot on a nightly basis. It’s not easy to do."
Merrill, who was also named to the all-MWC first team, led the MWC in scoring during conference play, averaging 22 points per game. Merrill led the MWC in free throws made (99), free-throw percentage (.892) and was second in minutes played (667).
“We have work to do still, but that kid is an Aggie through and through, always has been, always will be,” Smith said of Merrill. “Whether it's him, his family and so on with the lineage that he has. It really means something to him to be able to get us back where we belong and that's on top of the Mountain West Conference."
Merrill is also the first Aggie to average more than 20 points in a season since Jaycee Carroll averaged 22.4 in 2007-08. The Bountiful High product is the seventh played in USU basketball history to be named conference player of the year and the first Utah native to earn MWC Player of the Year honors since Utah’s Britton Johnsen did so in 2001-02.
“Obviously I have very high expectations for myself as a player and felt like I’ve improved over the last two years but really felt that I needed to take a big step forward in order for us to get to the next level as a team,” Merrill told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday.
Smith’s Coach of the Year honor is just the second ever for a first-year head coach in the MWC. Utah’s Ray Giacoletti was named MWC Coach of the Year in 2004-05. USU’s 25 wins under Smith this season are the most by a first-year head coach in USU basketball history and fifth-most by a first-year head coach in MWC history.
“I just can't say enough things about this group of guys,” Smith said. “The chemistry, the want-to-be coached and the buy-in, we demand a lot out of these guys and they rise to the occasion all the time, whether it's the preparation or the rehab that they go through.”
Queta’s inclusion on the roster turned out to be perhaps the biggest difference-maker in the MWC. The 6-foot-11 freshman center from Portugal was dominant in Year 1, rewriting the USU single-season block record with 73 blocks. Queta has helped USU rank No. 10 in field percentage defense (.392) and third in the nation in 2-point field goal percentage defense (.417). He is the sixth Aggie ever to be named the conference’s Freshman of the Year and second player in school history to win Defensive Player of the Year. Queta also earned all-MWC second team honors.
“We’ve definitely felt his impact from Day 1, especially during practice,” Merrill said of Queta. “Coach Smith’s defense is about taking care of the paint and forcing teams to take tough shots. And with Neemias, it makes it a lot more easy on us and tough on them. We’re really grateful to have him, for sure.”
USU kicks off MWC tournament play this Thursday at 7 p.m. against the winner of New Mexico and Wyoming, who play Wednesday in Las Vegas.