Abel Porter has been watching Utah State men’s basketball games and reliving the good, bad and ugly moments from the 2019-20 season. Like the 55-point win over Weber State early in the year. Or the game against St. Mary’s, where the Aggies squandered a late lead for their first loss of the season.
Porter has been watching not only to pass the time due to sports being postponed or canceled throughout the country due to the coronavirus, but also to navigate his emotional and mental state after the NCAA canceled its basketball tournament to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Like other Utah college sports programs, the Aggies feel they’ve lost an opportunity to make some noise on the biggest stage. But after a topsy-turvy season that included injuries, illnesses, a three-game losing streak and rising and dropping poll rankings, the way they overcame all that has them feeling at least somewhat satisfied.
“When you look back at it, we couldn’t have asked for a better way to end the season,” senior guard Diogo Brito said.
The Aggies enter the offseason with a roster full of young studs who got plenty of playing time and valuable experience over the last two seasons. Leading the group could be center Neemias Queta, who was still Utah State’s second leading scorer despite missing a chunk of the season due to a knee injury.
Queta is the defensive anchor of the Aggies and their most dangerous low-post threat. But his talent could mean he tries his luck in the upcoming NBA draft, much like did last offseason before deciding to return to USU for his sophomore year.
Aside from Queta, forward Justin Bean and guard Brock Miller, both sophomores, started practically every game for the Aggies in 2019-20. And with up-and-comers Alphonso Anderson, Sean Bairstow and Kuba Karwowski, there’s plenty of optimism going around for what fruit next season could bear.
“I think we still have a chance to repeat as Mountain West champions, obviously, and we’re going to do everything we can to do that,” Bean said.
It’s no secret, however, that Utah State will be losing some very important players to graduation or other means. Sam Merrill willed the team through the Mountain West Conference tournament, making big shot after big shot after big shot. He was the team’s leader in points, assists and 3-pointers made.
Brito played an important role off the bench, and made timely shots several times throughout the season. He was also seen as someone who could take some pressure off of Merrill on the defensive end.
Then there’s Porter, a starter who knew for the entire season that he wouldn’t return to Utah State despite having one more year of eligibility. But he was unsure about whether he would quit basketball after the 2019-20 season or try finding another opportunity. He has since entered the transfer portal.
“With not knowing what I’m going to do, I just really wanted to have options and see what was out there, see the opportunities with basketball and especially with schooling that I could see and I could find,” Porter said.
Coach Craig Smith expressed excitement about the group he’ll have next year. But there are still some unknowns.
“We have a lot of young men in our program that we really believe in,” Smith said. “We have a talented group. We’ll be much more athletic next year up and down the lineup. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to be better.”
Smith will be entering his third season with Utah State, and with an impressive track record. Two conference tournament titles. A 54-15 record. And, technically, two bids to the NCAA Tournament.
Many players credited Smith for keeping the team together and focused throughout the roughest parts of this past season. Brito thinks he’s the key to next year, too.
“I firmly believe that Utah State is in great hands,” Brito said. “You have Coach Smith at the helm, I don’t think anything can go wrong.”
Smith admitted that with a young team, there will be peaks and valleys next season. But as long as his players have the right mindset, he said, another successful season could be on the horizon.
“It’ll be a big summer for our guys,” Smith said. “Our guys have to get in the gym, they have to keep getting better and we have to have a tremendous attitude — an attitude that craves improvement. And if we do that, then I think we can do some really, really good things next year. But if we don’t, then who knows?”