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Utah State basketball coach Craig Smith still toiling away to ensure the Aggies have staying power

(Eli Lucero | The Herald Journal via AP) Utah State coach Craig Smith celebrates with fans on the court after Utah State defeated No. 12 Nevada 81-76 in an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Logan, Utah.

Utah State men’s basketball coach Craig Smith is spending more time with his family these days. The COVID-19 pandemic not only forced the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament, for which the Aggies qualified, but also moved students at USU to finish their spring semesters online.

So instead of playing a round or two on college basketball’s biggest stage and interacting with his players and coaching staff on a regular basis before school got out for the summer, Smith hangs out in his Logan home with his wife and four children. He’s learned to play croquet and taught his children to play blackjack. He’s playing H-O-R-S-E on the driveway with them.

But this time of year is usually the busiest for college basketball programs all over the country. After the March Madness dust settled, coaches would have been all over the map making visits to prospects, fielding official visits and checking out AAU players.

And despite the coronavirus making travel and close contact virtually impossible, Smith is still finding ways to evaluate players he might want to wear an Aggies uniform.

“We’re really in the thick of recruiting,” Smith told The Salt Lake Tribune in a phone interview this past week. “We still have a scholarship available for this class and obviously always looking to the future. So it is kind of a crazy time from that respect.”

Smith said the timetable for recruiting has moved up due to the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament. Usually most prospects start committing to schools sometime after the Final Four and through the following six weeks.

“You see a lot of these prospects committing much earlier as a whole,” Smith said.

The lack of travel and in-person evaluation has relegated Smith and his staff to rely on video of players in which they’re interested. He said they’re all watching clips for the recruiting class of 2020, 2021 and even 2022.

In addition to recruiting players, Smith said he and staff are checking in on those currently on his roster, most of whom have gone home, and making sure they’re doing well. He’s found that his players have a different mentality during this time compared to normal circumstances.

“Normally at this time, the guys would be chomping at the bit and so pumped to get home and see their families and kind of get away, which I think is really important,” Smith said. “And now a lot of the guys have been home for four to five weeks — or maybe even a little bit more — so some of these guys are excited to get back.”

The Aggies are in an important offseason after Sam Merrill and Abel Porter’s departures, along with the uncertainty of whether Neemias Queta will return to USU or declare for the NBA draft again. Porter recently committed to Ohio State for the final year of his college eligibility. But the team is confident about its chances next season.

Smith is doing what he can to plan for next season and also for the future. But he’s also taken a step back as the world grapples with the pandemic and focused on other aspects of his life, which is oftentimes dominated by his job and consuming sports in general.

He said he and his family have had a great time being together and tried to make the most out of an unfortunate and unprecedented situation.

“It’s been a really good time to reconnect and kind of develop some new family traditions,” Smith said.

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