Utah State men’s basketball shoots to reconjure the magic of 2020 behind a new cast of players
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. Bean and center Neemias Queta are the two staples in a mostly new Aggies team pursuing the same goal that got cut short by the coronavirus last year: a deep run through the NCAA Tournament. (AP File Photo/Jed Jacobsohn)
Half of Utah State’s players weren’t on its men’s basketball roster when the magic happened this spring.
They didn’t live through night after night after night of down-to-the-wire, hold-your-breath-and-cross-your-fingers games in the Mountain West Conference Championships in Las Vegas, where any scoring or defensive lapse could have been their last. They didn’t get to cut down the net when the Aggies won the tournament for the second straight year, which gave them a berth in the NCAA Tournament and the momentum to make a deep run. They didn’t feel the wind sucked out of them when the NCAA canceled the tournament due to COVID-19.
They weren’t there then, but they are now. And as the spurned Aggies try to recreate history, especially that lost NCAA Tournament opportunity, the nine young men who haven’t spent a minute on the court in a USU uniform will be central players.
“We really felt like last year could have made a deep run, but that was stopped,” said guard Marco Anthony, a redshirt junior. “So we might as well do it this year.”
Anthony lived through but couldn’t help with USU’s thrilling postseason because of NCAA transfer rules. He does know a thing or two about deep NCAA Tournament runs, however. Last year he arrived in Logan a few months after helping his former team, Virginia, win the national title.
That big-game experience can only help, especially if Anthony is tabbed to fill the gaping hole at point guard left by Sam Merrill. Merrill, who last week was taken in the second round of the NBA draft, finished his USU career second all-time in both points and assists. He was also the catalyst in the Aggies’ MW Tournament charge, hitting the game-winner in the championship vs. one-loss San Diego State.
SDSU was picked to repeat as regular-season champion in the MW preseason poll. USU was pegged at No. 3, behind Boise State.
With Merrill gone, along with senior starting guards Diogo Brito and Abel Porter, USU is looking for someone who can provide leadership and get the ball into their big men. Returning juniors Neemias Queta and Justin Bean, along with senior Alphonso Anderson, figure to be the centerpiece of the Aggies’ schemes this year. Queta, a 7-foot center, was selected to the preseason all-Mountain West team. Bean, a 6-7 power forward, was named to the all-MW Defensive Team in the spring and is the only returning player in the MW to average a double-double (11.9 points, 10.5 rebounds).
Ideally, the guards also need to be scoring threats to keep the court balanced and keep defenders honest. Anthony — who has played point guard since middle school and averaged 25.5 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists in his senior year of high school in San Antonio, Texas — said he’s ready to take on that role.
Coach Craig Smith, who is in the third year of a five-year contract with USU, hasn’t named his starters, though, even with the Aggies’ first game looming Wednesday against Wichita in the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic in South Dakota.
“We are going to be inexperienced in the backcourt,” Smith said. “But I like our talent level. I like our camaraderie. I like our competitive spirit.
The newcomers range from Steven Ashworth of Alpine, who helped take Lone Peak High to the 6A state title last year, to Max Shulga of Kiev, Ukraine, who was expected to represent his country in the U20 European Championships this summer before they were canceled. Despite being unproven at the college level, the eight freshmen on the roster give Smith several options.
“This is a lot deeper team than we’ve had as whole. We’re definitely a lot more athletic,” Smith said. “I think we have more versatility, meaning we can play big, we can play small and everything in between. That allows us as a coach to maybe be a little more creative with some things.”
That’s especially important this season.
As Brock Miller, a junior guard who started 29 of 34 games for USU last season, pointed out, “If there’s any COVID issues and guys have to sit out, we have guys that can kind of fill in for each other.”
San Diego State guard Malachi Flynn, right, shoots as Utah State guard Brock Miller defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020, in Logan, Utah. (AP File Photo/Eli Lucero)
Players will be tested three times a week, in accordance with MW coronavirus guidelines. The conference also instituted a series format, where two teams will face each other twice within a three-day span at the same site to reduce spread. Miller said several Aggies tested positive for the virus prior to the season, including himself. That could actually benefit the team by keeping it from losing multiple players once play begins.
USU is going to need everyone — the newcomers and the veterans — to play as one if they’re going to reconjure the magic of the 2020 postseason. And that’s exactly what they plan to do.
“And more,” Anthony said.
The Aggies will succeed if: They can find a point guard, or a cadre of them, who can fill the shoes vacated by NBA second-round draftee Sam Merrill. The big men, especially center Neemias Queta, also must perform to expectations or above, and they need to stay healthy and flexible.
The Aggies won’t succeed if: They can’t get the ball inside to Queta and forward Justin Bean or can’t establish weapons around the perimeter to open up the paint. Another concern is that the eight freshmen won’t adjust to the speed of the college game fast enough to make them assets in the all-important postseason tournament.
Bottom line: The Aggies are young and without their engine in Merrill, so they’re probably going to take some lumps early. Still, Coach Smith has a winning touch and he’s prepared the team mentally and schematically for a season of stops, starts and uncertainty. USU could go dancing again, but it probably won’t make the grand entrance it was poised to last spring.
Nov. 25 Wichita State at Bad Boy Mower Crossover Classic, 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 26 TBD at Bad Boy Mower Crossover Classic, 12:30 p.m./5:30 p.m.
Nov. 27 TBD at Bad Boy Mower Crossover Classic, TBA
Dec. 21 San Jose State, TBA
Dec. 23 San Jose State, TBA
Dec. 31 at Air Force, TBA
Jan. 7 at New Mexico, TBA
Jan. 9 at New Mexico, TBA
Jan 14 San Diego State, TBA
Jan 16 San Diego State, TBA
Jan 20 Colorado State, TBA
Jan 22 Colorado State, TBA
Feb. 4 at Fresno State, TBA
Feb. 6 at Fresno State, TBA
Feb. 18 at Boise State, TBA
Feb. 20 at Boise State, TBA