Ready for some college basketball?
The Aggie men sure are, and they better be as they open the 2019-20 regular season with five games in 13 nights. Utah State tips off Tuesday night in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, welcoming Montana State. It’s the first of five straight home games for the Aggies.
“We are excited to get back out there,” USU guard Sam Merrill said after practice on Monday. “It feels like its been a long offseason. We have put in a lot of work and made some good strides, but you never truly know until you go and play someone. We are excited to see what we are made of. We have a good test coming in.”
That’s mainly because Montana State has a new head coach in Danny Sprinkle and many new players. The Aggies and Bobcats are scheduled to tip at 8 o’clock. The game will be televised on ATTSN.
“We’re familiar with these guys, in terms that we’ve played this program the last two years,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “Two years ago at our place and last year at their place to open the season. It’s a new beginning for them, especially with a new head coach and 10 new players on their roster. The word is — expect the unexpected. It’s the first game of the year ... you just have to be on point and ready for about anything and everything. There’s going to have to be a lot of adjustments on the fly.”
USU is coming off a championship season where it tied for the regular season title in the Mountain West Conference, won the league tournament and made it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011. Montana State went 15-17 a year ago, but did lead the Big Sky Conference in scoring with 82.7 points a game. However, the Bobcats are under a new coach.
“Obviously, we’ve done our due diligence to find out all about their personnel and see what coach Sprinkle has done at different places,” Smith said. “We’ll be on point, and then we have to take care of our business and take care of business at home and play the best that we can play. ... We have a lot of new faces, too, and we have to figure out how to put these guys in a position to succeed.”
Merrill, who was named to the watch list for the Naismith Trophy Men’s Player of the Year on Monday, is confident the Aggies will come out ready to play Tuesday night. The senior feels the team has prepared during fall camp.
“It comes down to going out and playing hard,” Merrill said. “We’re excited to get out there. ... We think we have a decent idea of the stuff they are going to run. We know they are going to play hard and with a lot of energy for this new coach. We are going to have to match that.”
A year ago these two opened the season in Bozeman, Montana. Merrill had a career night with 37 points, and USU won Smith’s debut at the helm, 101-71.
“It was a good way to start the season (last year),” Merrill said. “But right now we are just worried about going 1-0.”
While the Bobcats return guard Harald Frey, who averaged a team-best 17.2 points a game, and two other starters, many of the new guys are excited to play. Three are listed as probable starters for Tuesday night as Montana State has a international roster with four starters from outside the U.S.
“He’s very good,” Smith said of Frey. “... He can do it all. He can shoot the three, excellent penetrator, makes great decisions. He’s a cross of Sam Merrill and Abel Porter, to be honest. They can put him at a lot of different spots that way and (he) really makes them go. Him being a senior will be a big-time stabilizing force for those guys having all new guys in their program. He’s an excellent, excellent player.”
The Aggies have international players as well. USU is also much taller this year and the length could give opponents fits.
“Every season is different and we have a lot more length,” Merrill said. “But I also think you are going to see a lot more offense run through (Justin) Bean and Abel (Porter). I’m fine with that. ... The core of who we are is not going to change.”
Merrill led the team in scoring (20.9 pointer per game) and assists (4.2). Neemias Queta averaged 11.8 ppg, 8.9 rpg and blocked 2.4 shots an outing. Also back are Diogo Brito (8.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.2 apg), Brock Miller (8.1 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 1.2 apg), Bean (4.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Porter (5.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 2.8 apg).
“I haven’t figured out who we’re starting yet,” Smith said Monday. “We have to make that final decision. ... Depending on who they have on the floor may reflect who we have on the floor in terms of a matchup to guard them or to try to expose them. It works both ways. There’s always yin and yang when it comes to that. There’s just a lot of guys that are pretty even on our team, so I expect a lot of guys to play just like we did last year. We played a million guys in November and December. We were playing 10 or 11 guys every night. We’re not just going to play a guy to play a guy. They have to be on point and play hard. ... We do have some depth to our team and, hopefully, that will show on the court.”
Queta is the only Aggie that will miss the opener. The all-league center injured his knee over the summer playing for his home country for Portugal and is working his way back. No time frame has been set for his return.
A few other USU players have been banged up some, but are expected to play against Montana State. The exceptions are freshman Liam McChesney and junior Marco Anthony. McChesney is redshirting, while Anthony is sitting this season out after transferring from Virginia. Smith said one more Aggie will most likely redshirt, but did not give a name on Monday.