This is the third in a series of stories previewing the upcoming men’s and women’s college basketball seasons. Read: Things are slowly coming together for BYU in Mark Pope’s first season leading the Cougars and University of Utah men’s basketball has its youngest team in the Larry Krystkowiak era. Coming Tuesday: Utah women.
Logan • Sam Merrill doesn’t lack for much in his basketball game, including height. He stands 6 feet, 5 inches — more than half a foot taller than the average American male and two inches above the average height of a college basketball player. Still, among his Utah State teammates, he’s the runt.
Merrill is tied with point guard Brock Miller as the second-smallest player on an Aggies’ squad that enters the 2019-20 season as the second-tallest in the nation. They average out at 6-7 ½ , just behind Washington (6-8 ⅕ ).
“I haven’t ever been a part of anything like this, with the size that we have,” said Merrill, who was struck by the height difference between College of Idaho and his squad in their exhibition game Tuesday. “Just with the size that we have, it is much different than what we’re going to play against on most nights.”
Yes, they’re breathing rare air in Logan, and it has nothing to do with the Wasatch or Bear River mountains. Even rarer and loftier, though, is the goal the Aggies are chasing: to cut down the net following the NCAA Division I championship tournament.
It’s not that far out of reach for Utah State. The Aggies were, after all, picked No. 17 in the Associated Press preseason poll, marking the first time they’ve been ranked in the preseason since 1970-71. And getting within arm’s reach of the title seems exponentially more attainable than it did last season, when the only poll they were ranked in was the Mountain West Conference media poll, where they were tabbed to finish ninth.
Buying into the confidence exuded by new coach Craig Smith, however, the team ran roughshod over the conference. The Aggies (28-7) dropped just three MWC games on their way to sharing the title with Nevada. Then they won the conference tournament, giving USU its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011.
“He kind of shifted the whole culture into: It doesn’t matter who we’re facing, we’re going to be the toughest team on the court,” Farmington’s Abel Porter, a junior who at 6-3 is the shortest player on the team, said of Smith. “Luckily, we had a team that accepted that and kind of followed him in that aspect. Coach Smith showed anything is possible if you work hard.”
Perhaps even winning the state’s first national championship in the sport in 76 years.
The Aggies’ campaign got a lot stronger this summer when both Merrill and 7-foot sophomore center Neemias Queta opted not to enter the NBA Draft. Merrill, a shooting guard, won the MWC Player of the Year award and the MWC tournament MVP trophy last season as a junior. The Bountiful product averaged 20.9 points, 3.9 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. Queta collected both the MWC’s Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors. In his rookie year, the native of Portugal averaged 11.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game.
The Aggies will succeed if: They live up to expectations. Utah State won’t be able to surprise any teams this season. They will also need to make sure they integrate the eight players who are basically new to the team if they are going to have the depth needed to make a run at the NCAA title.
The Aggies won’t succeed if: Queta can’t fully recover from his injury. USU prides itself on its defense, and it centers on the reigning MWC’s Defensive POY. His upbeat personality also brings levity to the team. Queta is partially practicing but will likely miss some early games.
Bottom line: This Aggies team will be exciting to watch this season. They have arguably the two best college players in Utah, newfound swagger instilled by coach Smith and heaps of motivation after losing in the first round of March Madness last year. If the moment doesn’t get too big for them, they should go far.
Merrill said he and Queta talked about returning to USU to take care of some unfinished business. Last year’s magical run ended abruptly with No. 8 USU’s loss to ninth-seeded Washington in the first round of March Madness.
“Those were definitely conversations that we all had as returners from last year’s team,” Merrill said. “As good as the year went, losing in the first round of the tournament left quite a sting for us. We’re hoping we can find a way to get back to get that opportunity again and hopefully make the most of it.”
Four starters return for the Aggies: Merrill, Queta, Porter and Miller. Diogo Brito, their valuable sixth man, is also back in the picture, as is Justin Bean, a 6-7 forward who has found a spot in the starting lineup.
The team will have a chance to get some of its taller players, like junior Kuba Karwowski and redshirt freshman Trevin Dorius, who stand 7-2 and 7-0, respectively, up to speed early. That’s because Queta sprained his knee while playing in the FIBA U-20 European Championships in July and is expected to sit out the start of the season.
Smith said it will take a team effort to get to the top. It’s a tall order, but if any team is up to the task, it might just be the Aggies.
USU’S 2019-2020 SCHEDULE
All times Mountain
Nov. 5 – Montana State, 8 p.m.
Nov. 8 – Weber State, 7 p.m.
Nov. 12 – Denver, 7 p.m.
Nov. 15 – North Carolina A&T, 7 p.m.
Nov. 18 – UTSA, 7 p.m.
Nov. 22 – vs LSU (Montego Bay, Jamaica), 5 p.m.
Nov. 24 – vs North Texas (Montego Bay, Jamaica), 4:30 p.m.
Nov. 29 – at Saint Mary’s (Calif.), 9:30 p.m.
Dec. 4 – at San José State, 9:15 p.m.
Dec. 7 – Fresno State, 4 p.m.
Dec. 10 — St. Katherine, 7 p.m.
Dec. 14 – vs BYU (Salt Lake City), 5 p.m.
Dec. 18 – vs South Florida (Houston, Texas), 5:45 p.m.
Dec. 21 – vs Florida (Sunrise, Fla.), 12:30 p.m.
Dec. 28 — Eastern Oregon, 7 p.m.
Jan. 1 – at UNLV, 9 p.m.
Jan. 4 – San Diego State, 8 p.m.
Jan. 7 – at Air Force, 9 p.m.
Jan. 11 – Nevada, 6 p.m.
Jan. 18 – at Boise State, 8 p.m.
Jan. 21 – Air Force, 9 p.m.
Jan. 25 – Colorado State, 8 p.m.
Jan. 28 – at Wyoming, 9 p.m.
Feb. 1 – at San Diego State, 8 p.m.
Feb. 5 – UNLV, 8 p.m.
Feb. 8 – Boise State, 8 p.m.
Feb. 11 – at Colorado State, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 15 – at Fresno State, 8 p.m.
Feb. 19 – Wyoming, 7 p.m.
Feb. 25 – San José State, 9 p.m.
Feb. 29 – at New Mexico, 8 p.m.