A year ago Utah State was picked to finish near the bottom of the Mountain West Conference. The Aggies ended the year with a share of the regular-season title, were ranked in the top 25 and went on to win the league tournament, earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.
With four starters back, including the MW Player of the Year, the Defensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year, Utah State will not sneak up on anyone in 2019-20. In fact, the target will be on the Aggies, as they have progressed from underdogs to favorites under second-year coach Craig Smith. “We have to approach this year the same way as last year,” Smith says. “Pressure is a privilege. We have to approach it with the right mindset, the same way we did last year.”
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Craig Smith
2018-19 RECORD (MW): 28-7 (15-3)
2018-19 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Washington 78-61 in the first round
F Dwayne Brown Jr. (6.1 ppg, 2.5 rpg)
G John Knight III (7.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg)
F Quinn Taylor (8.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg)
The Aggie faithful breathed a big sigh of relief when Neemias Queta withdrew from the NBA Draft and returned for his sophomore season. The 6'11" center averaged 11.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game as he was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year as well as the Freshman of the Year.
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Getting Queta back was huge as the two departing seniors from a year ago were both forwards. “[Queta] really anchors us on defense but also does some really good things offensively,” Smith says.
There is some question, however, if Queta will be available when practice begins in October after he suffered a sprained left knee in late July while playing for Portugal in the U20 European Championship. The staff is hopeful he will be 100 percent for the opener.
Size up front will not be an issue this year as 7'2" Kuba Karwowski, 6'11" Trevin Dorius and 6'9" Liam McChesney have been added to the roster. The Aggies also get 6'10" Klay Stall and 6'8" Roche Grootfaam back from injury. Also in the mix are junior college transfer Alphonso Anderson and fan favorite Justin Bean, who are both 6'7". Smith calls Bean “the most improved player” from a year ago. He saw more playing time down the stretch and finished his freshman season averaging 4.1 points and 3.8 rebounds per game.
“We will be one of the biggest teams in the country,” Smith says. “We have tremendous length, good athleticism and combine that with skill, which is the key.”
Sam Merrill became a starter midway through his freshman season and now has 87 starts under his belt. He led the team in both scoring (20.9 ppg) and assists (4.2 apg) en route to earning MW Player of the Year honors.
“Sam is so incredibly unselfish,” Smith says. “Sam is one of the best shooters in the country, but I think he is a better passer/decision maker. Guys love playing with him.”
Abel Porter and Brock Miller are back as starters, while Diogo Brito emerged as one of the best sixth men in the MW. Brito did whatever was needed, averaging 8.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.1 steals.
Utah State added a freshman cut from the same cloth as Brito, with the difference being that he is three inches taller. The 6'8" Sean Bairstow can play any position. Junior college walk-on Carson Bischoff has proven he can score and will look to do that at the next level.
“I’m really excited at the talent we have and the versatility each brings to the table,” Smith says.
Despite having won 17 of their last 18 games heading to the NCAA Tournament, the Aggies ended the season with what Smith calls a “bitter taste in our mouth.” They were brimming with confidence that they could win a game in the postseason. That didn’t happen — Utah State lost to Washington in an 8/9 game — leaving the returning players hungry for the upcoming season. Utah State has added height and more athletic players to a solid core. Getting back to the NCAAs is a very strong possibility — and don’t be surprised if the stay is a bit longer this time around.
Postseason Prediction: Sweet 16
Mountain West Prediction: 1st