Logan • At the beginning of the season, the Utah State men’s basketball team was picked ninth in the Mountain West Conference preseason poll.
Fast forward to this week: The Aggies are in fourth place, just one loss behind Fresno State and UNLV, which are tied for second in the MW. When the season started, and USU first-year head coach Craig Smith saw where USU was ranked, he took as a measure of how much the team was respected. But he knew better. Smith saw a team that could contend.
“Our guys never believed in all that stuff,” Smith said after last week’s win over Colorado State.
What the Aggies do believe in is themselves, and they do so because they believe in Smith. In just his first season at the helm in Logan, Smith has transformed Utah State from a middle-of-the-pack team to one that is 14-5, on a three-game winning streak and has a legitimate opportunity to challenge for a conference championship.
Had someone told USU Athletic Director John Hartwell that would be the case when he hired Smith last March, he would have said that prediction was “overly optimistic.” But the players make it clear that their success hinges on what kind of coach Smith has shown himself to be, both on and off the court.
“We would all run through a brick wall for this guy,” freshman Brock Miller said of Smith.
UTAH STATE AT NEW MEXICO
When • Saturday, 2 p.m.
TV • CBSSN
When the search for a new basketball coach began last year, Hartwell looked at seven candidates. But no one caught his eye like Smith did. No one was an energetic and passionate about the game as he was. Hartwell knew almost immediately that Smith would be right for the job.
“Five minutes into the interview, I said, hey, this is a guy who not only has great credentials, but that I felt like could be a really good fit in Cache Valley and at Utah State,” Hartwell said.
Smith has delivered. Despite taking over a team that features five freshman and only two seniors, he has slowly instilled his philosophy. When he came in, he wanted to get the team familiar what he called “the process of winning,” he said.
At times, Smith’s players are “too smart for their own good,” he said. In other words, they think the game to an extent that slows down their reactions and prevents them from just playing basketball. But as the season has progressed, each players has learned Smith’s style of play, his terminology and how to interact with the coaching staff as a whole.
Smith thinks that progress is what has led to the run the Aggies are on.
“It’s starting to show,” Smith said.
And it’s showing mainly at home. In Smith’s short tenure, Utah State has only dropped one game in Logan, and that was to Fresno State on a last-second shot on a night the Aggies led most of the way. The Spectrum is once again a fortress.
That was a high priority for Hartwell when he interviewed candidates last year. Smith laid out a plan for that. Yet, these Aggies are winning big games on the road as well.
Junior Sam Merrill said the Aggies have been able to put it all together because of the clear expectations Smith has for the team.
“He let us know from Day 1 that this was the type of team that we were gonna be — an energetic, a hard-working, a hard-playing team,” Merrill said. “That has translated because it’s not something that we do once a week or once every four practices, but every single day we bring that energy. That all starts at the top with coach Smith.”
At every one of his coaching stops, Smith has found success relatively quickly. In his first season at South Dakota, he improved the team’s previous win total by five games, and eventually earned the Summit League Coach of the Year Award. In his only other head coaching gig at Mayville State, he took a team that had only won one game to winning 28 in just two seasons.
Time will tell if Smith can replicate that type of success with the Aggies, but so far, he’s off to a good start. And his team wants more.
“We’re not satisfied,” Miller said. “We’re going to continue climbing and that’s what he expects night in and night out.”