It’s time to play against someone other than themselves.
The 17th ranked Aggie men’s basketball team completed practice No. 24 on Monday since camp began. They did have a close scrimmage against Northern Colorado a few weekends ago, but playing an opponent in front of fans has not happened yet for the 2019-20 team.
That changes Wednesday night. Utah State will host the College of Idaho (2-0) in an exhibition game in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. Opening tip is set for 7 o’clock.
“We are going to find out if we are ready,” Aggie head coach Craig Smith said after practice Monday. “You get to this time of year and we have thrown a lot at our guys, some stuff has stuck and some is still on a learning curve, but definitely made a lot of strides the last seven or eight practices. ... At the end of the day, our guys are ready to play somebody else and not themselves.”
While it will be good for USU to get some time under the lights, there should be some caution in facing the Coyotes. Yes, the College of Idaho, which is located in Caldwell, is an NAIA school, but success has been something the Coyotes are accustomed to. They have made two straight trips to the Final Four.
“We will be playing a very well coached team that has made back-to-back Final Fours in the NAIA,” Smith said. “They execute their stuff very well. I see a lot of stuff that they run, we run, so that should help both teams in terms of preparation.”
Last weekend the College of Idaho opened its season with wins against Montana Western and Montana Tech. So, the Coyotes have been in action and return their top two scores from a team that went 31-6 last year. Senior guards Nate Bruneel and Talon Pinckney averaged 12.8 and 12.0 points a game a year ago, respectively.
“This will be a great test for us,” Smith said. “They have some guards that can play. ... They have a rich tradition of being very, very good for a long period of time. They can carve you up and like to get out and run. They are very skilled and are good defensively.”
The Aggies will dress most of its 15 players on the roster. Smith said All-Mountain West center Neemias Queta is the only one that will sit out for sure. However, center Kuba Karwowski has been nursing a foot injury and forward Liam McChesney has been sick. Both Karwowski and McChesney were dressed and at practice on Monday.
“You want to win, you want to execute, you want to play well and you want to play everybody,” Smith said. “It’s different this year, but there are some similarities. There are nine guys out there that haven’t played a minute of Division I basketball with us as the coaches. That’s two thirds of our team. ... We are always evaluating to see the strengths of our team to see what will help us be the best we can be.”
Tentative starters for the Aggies are guards Sam Merrill, Abel Porter and Brock Miller, forward Justin Bean and center Klay Stall. Forward Alphonso Anderson and veteran guard Diogo Brito are expected to be the first guys off the bench. Bean will play with a broken nose and is currently wearing a mask.
“I’m going to try and enjoy my senior season as much as I have enjoyed my other three years here,” said Brito, who was one of the top sixth man in the league last season. “... There are very high expectations. It’s something new because we have never had this kind of hype going into the season. We like it. ... We have a responsibility now to show up every single game as the ranked team that we are. If we play hard and do our job, we will prove we belong in the rankings.”
After the exhibition game on Wednesday, the Aggies have five home games to start the regular season. USU will play a lot of games in the early part of the season and against some tough opponents. The seniors are doing their best to have the same approach to each contest as last year.
“We have some tough games coming up, but the way we look at it as a team is game by game,” Brito said. “If you start to looking too far ahead, you lose focus of the moment of what you can do right now. You can’t control the game against LSU right now. You just focus on today’s practice and tomorrow’s practice and just go game by game.”
USU has won 18 of its last 19 exhibition games, dating back to the 2008.
The Aggies almost have their full schedule put together. USU will host Eastern Oregon on Dec. 28. The Aggies will also host an opponent that will be named soon on Dec. 10.
“It’s only Oct. 18, almost Halloween, so ...” Smith quipped. “It’s been the most bizarre deal and I wish I could give a good explanation, and I could if you had 30 minutes, but we are not going to go down that. It was important to get a game on Dec. 28.”