Inside the defensive prowess of Utah State guard Marco Anthony

Anthony honed his defending skills at the University of Virginia, where he won an NCAA title in 2019, but there were early signs he was special on that end of the court.

Utah State guard Marco Anthony (44) dribbles the ball as San Diego State forward Keshad Johnson (0) defends during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP, Pool)

Marco Anthony noticed Brian Etheridge preferred driving to the basket and finishing with his left hand despite being a right-hander. Anthony forced him to go right and take the more difficult fadeaway jump shot.

Anthony noticed Etheridge liked to come off screens and look to pass either to the roll man or split the defense to create for himself or someone else. Anthony cut off those options, too.

Anthony noticed these tendencies and adjusted to them like a veteran basketball player, not the incoming Oliver Wendell Holmes High School freshman he actually was. He adjusted to them like someone who has defended Etheridge multiple times, even though that summer afternoon in 2013 was the first time.

“Who is this guy?” thought Etheridge, Anthony’s close friend and former high school teammate.

It was clear then that Anthony, who said he “couldn’t guard a soul” in high school, had the makings of an elite defender. He honed those skills at the University of Virginia, where he won a national championship in 2019.

Now as a junior, starting at guard for Utah State, he’s getting consistent minutes for the first time in his college career and is trusted by coach Craig Smith to be the team’s most versatile defender and playmaker. On offense, he’s a sharp 3-point shooter and one of the only Aggies who can create his own shot. On the other end, he’s often guarding the opposing team’s best player.

“We can do a lot of different things with him out out there,” Smith said.

San Diego State guard Trey Pulliam (4) passes the ball as Utah State guard Marco Anthony (44) defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP, Pool)

Lessons from Virginia

Anthony had the occasional breakout game in this two seasons with the Cavaliers. Like when he put up 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting in 18 minutes against Louisville as a freshman when several of his teammates were injured.

But Anthony mostly rode the bench. He averaged 1.5 points, 0.6 assists and 0.7 rebounds in 6.3 minutes per game in two years because ahead of him in the guard rotation were three future NBA players — Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter.

Despite that, UVA associate head coach Jason Williford said Anthony always exhibited a “businesslike manner.”

“Regardless of if he played zero minutes or if he played 25 minutes, he came to work every day,” Williford said.

Anthony returned eager from road trips in which he didn’t get to play in the game. Kihei Clark, Anthony’s former Virginia teammate, said he would call a team manager so he could shoot extra shots on such occasions.

And Anthony may have had the best teachers in Jerome, Guy and Hunter. He said he learned about controlling tempo from Jerome. From Guy, he learned to have faith in his shot no matter how many he misses. Hunter taught him to always think about defense first.

Jerome said Anthony joined in about 90% of his summer workouts with Hunter, where the three would take turns playing each other 1-on-1 and Anthony would ask “tons” of questions.

The impact of his time with those three players combined with succeeding at highest level in college basketball solidified for Anthony what it takes to win — knowledge he brought to the Aggies.

“Just always being locked in,” Anthony said. “You can’t take a day off because that day you take off, that’s allowing the competition to get one step closer to you or possibly one step ahead of you if you don’t take advantage of the time that you have.”

Anthony’s exploits at Virginia go largely unspoken among the Aggies, save for a short-lived ribbing of some players referring to him as “National Champion” when he first arrived in Logan ahead of last season. But this teammates don’t need to hear it from him.

“It’s really cool because Marco doesn’t talk a whole lot about what it was like in Virginia, but we all know,” sophomore center Trevin Dorius said. “We know that he knows what it takes to win. And the way that he offers criticism and critique is just coming from a place of he wants us all to be better. And we’re able to take it because of the leader that he is.”

Anthony prefers to keep the national championship in the past and focus on the now with the Aggies. But his experience undeniably manifests itself with his new team, and on one side of the court in particular.

Utah State head coach Craig Smith, left, greets Utah State's Marco Anthony during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Utah State, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

A defensive juggernaut

Former Holmes High coach Jarvin Hall unleashed Anthony in myriad ways on the offensive end. He played him at different positions and utilized the point guard skills he had developed in junior high, which translated to the young left-hander eventually averaging 25.5 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game as a senior.

Anthony’s reputation coming out of high school was that of a scorer. Smith and Aggies associate head coach Eric Peterson, who is in charge of recruiting at USU, liked what they saw from him back when they coached together at the University of South Dakota. But at the time, they had no avenue to get him.

Once Anthony put his name in the transfer portal, however, Smith went all in on trying to get him, only this time to Logan. And after watching “every possession” of him in a Cavaliers uniform, it was clear to Smith that Anthony’s defensive game had caught up to his offense.

With Anthony being paired with junior center Neemias Queta, the Aggies have options on defense they didn’t have before.

“As good as we’ve been defensively, we haven’t exactly always had that type of player our first two years at Utah State,” Smith said. “He can spearhead it. And when you have a guy like Queta at the rim, a guy like Marco on the perimeter, now you have a chance to be elite defensively. And I think our numbers show that.”

USU allows just 61.3 points per game, which is 12th in the country and second in the Mountain West Conference. The Aggies are also first in the conference in field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 38.5%.

Senior guard Alphonso Anderson said Anthony’s ability to keep offensive players in front of him and take away their first option gives Utah State defensive pliability overall.

“This year I feel like we can, as a whole, guard the ball a little bit better,” Anderson said. “And when you have somebody like Marco, he can guard bigger guards or post or smaller guards. His being a versatile defender, it allows you to do more stuff defensively.”

Anthony didn’t play last season due to NCAA transfer rules. But this season, Anthony is averaging 11.2 points, 2.6 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game in a team-leading 30.3 minutes. He is also shooting 39% from the 3-point line.

Etheridge says he watches almost all of Anthony’s games on television. He’s noticed that Anthony has put an emphasis on doing anything it takes to help the Aggies win, particularly “putting more effort than ever on defense.”

And at least one former teammate thinks that Anthony continues on his current trajectory, he might reach the basketball stratosphere.

“I think the sky is the limit for him,” said Jerome, now a rookie with the Oklahoma City Thunder. “He has an NBA body. He has an NBA mind. He works super hard on his game. He has touch around the basket with his right hand, his left hand. He can guard. … Anything is possible for him.”