Sam Merrill is gone, but Utah State and rest of Mountain West believe Aggies are still contenders

Utah State forward Justin Bean (34) shoots next to Saint Mary's forward Malik Fitts (24) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Moraga, Calif., Friday, Nov. 29, 2019. (AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn)

Utah State is going to need one special player to step into the role vacated by senior guard Sam Merrill. Actually, it’s going to need a lot of them.

Not even a season has passed since Merrill’s final game in an Aggies uniform and yet, in part because of that game, he has already become an empyreal member of the program’s lore. His standing as the school’s No 2 all-time in scoring and assists was enough to earn him reverence. What elevated him to that iconic status, though, was the way he willed USU to a wild run to the team’s second straight Mountain West Tournament Championship, hitting clutch shot after clutch shot, including the winner over once-beaten San Diego State, in a sterling MVP effort.

Now Merrill — who is expected to be a second-round pick in the NBA Draft — is gone, and the Aggies have to figure out who they are without him.

“Other guys got to step up,” third year coach Craig Smith said Thursday during the MW media days. “You have our returning guys and Justin Bean has to be a little bit better. Neemias Queta has to be better. Alfonzo Anderson has to be better. Brock Miller has to take the next step. Sean Bairstow, and you just keep going down the line. So all those guys got to play like upperclassmen now.”

The Aggies didn’t just lose Merrill, they lost their entire starting backcourt. Diogo Brito graduated and signed a pro contract to play in Spain. Abel Porter, meanwhile, transferred to Ohio State but last week disclosed a rare heart condition that will end his basketball career.

As Smith pointed out, with the departure of those three, USU loses about 47% of both its on-court minutes and its scoring from a team that tied for second in the regular-season standings. In their place, the coach has nine new players, eight of whom haven’t played a single minute of college basketball.

Yet there is faith that Smith can make that exchange work. The Aggies were picked by the media to finish third in the MW, according to the conference preseason poll released Wednesday. Only defending regular-season champion San Diego State and up-and-comer Boise State received more first-place votes.

Keeping the Aggies in arm’s reach of the conference title is the team’s frontcourt. Anchored by the two-headed monster of returning junior starters Bean and Queta, Boise coach Leon Rice called it “one of the best front lines on the West Coast.”

SDSU coach Brian Dutcher agreed the Aggies have become a program that can’t be overlooked.

“With Bean and Queta back to just start off their program, they’re going to be good again,” Dutcher said. “Those are two really good players and the pieces around them that [Smith] has coming back, they’re going to be competitive. They have a program now, they’re not a one-hit wonder.”

Queta, a 7-foot center out of Portugal, was slow returning from surgery on his left knee prior to last season. Still, he managed to average 13.0 points and 7.8 rebounds per game and made three key blocks in the final minutes of USU’s win in a dogfight over Wyoming in the tournament semifinals. He also received a nod as a member of the preseason all-MW team.

Bean, a 6-6 power forward, meanwhile had his own big tournament moments. He scored the difference-maker in a 75-70 quarterfinal win over New Mexico and clutch free throws against Wyoming. He is the only MW player to average a double-double (11.9 points, 10.5 rebounds) returning this season.

Senior Alphonso Anderson, a 6-6 forward who didn’t shrink from the pressure of the MW Tournament, returns to lend some depth to the lineup, as does senior center Kuba Karwowski.

In addition to his role as a team centerpiece, Bean said he has taken on the responsibility of being a team leader this season.

“I think that’s always been a goal of mine, just to try and be that glue guy for our team,” Bean said. “And this year it takes on a whole new meaning with Sam and Abel and Diogo and other guys that have left.”

Of course, with those three out, the question becomes, who will get the ball to the players inside the key. Marco Anthony, a redshirt junior who played two seasons with Virginia — including winning the national championship in 2019 — before transferring to USU last year makes for a good candidate. Miller, a junior who started 29 games for the Aggies last year, also is in the running, as are a slew of freshmen.

Yet, when asked point-blank who his starting point guard would be, Smith passed on naming the player who would play the position filled by Merrill for most of the last half of last year’s magical season.

“It’ll be a little bit by committee. We’re still duking it out to see, you know, who is going to take the reins at that spot,” the coach said. “And when I say that, people can take that two ways, like, ‘Oh, that might be a spot of concern’ or I view it as a spot of strength. I really like where we’re at in that position. I think we’re very deep.”

Smith doesn’t have much time to decide who will shoulder the burden of taking Merrill’s place. The Aggies will tip off their season in less than two weeks when they play Wichita State on the opening day of the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic. The tournament runs Nov. 25-27 in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Then again, Smith’s problems are minuscule compared to some that other MW teams are facing. New Mexico coach Paul Weir said his team has had just three live-action practices since last season as the team deals with stringent COVID-19 restrictions put in place by the state’s governor. The Lobos have not scheduled any preseason contests and are not sure if they will be able to host or travel to games due to the state’s quarantine regulations. The Lobo football team is currently based in Las Vegas in order to compete this season.

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