It’s been a different summer so far for the Aggie men’s basketball team.
Being more familiar with the coaching staff certainly helps. Coming off a successful season has also created plenty of hype for the 2019-20 campaign.
While the start of the next semester is still a ways off, the Utah State players have been working out on their own and when allowed as a team. Then there is center Neemias Queta playing in the U20 European Championships for his home country of Portugal. Queta had a double-double Friday in a quarterfinal win (96-85 over Georgia) with 26 points and 14 rebounds. He also had six assists.
Incoming freshman Sean Bairstow spent some time playing with an Australian national team last month. Reigning Mountain West Conference Player of the Year Sam Merrill is currently at the CP3 Elite Guard Camp in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Only 15 collegiate guards were invited to this camp, which is hosted by NBA point guard Chris Paul.
“Sam is such a great leader and is so unselfish,” USU head coach Craig Smith said earlier this month. “Sam is one of the best shooters in the country. As good of a shooter as he is, I think he is an even better passer/decision maker. He is the most unselfish star that I’ve ever been around. Guys love playing with him because he makes the right play all of the time. On top of that, he is a great defensive player.”
Coming off a season where the Aggies tied for the regular-season title in the Mountain West and then won the conference tournament for the league’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament, there will be a target on their backs. Four starters return from that USU team that went 28-7 and ended the regular season ranked No. 25. Merrill and Queta, who had tested the NBA waters before returning, are two of the headliners returning.
“I know it’s clicheish, but we can only control what we can control,” Smith said. “Pressure is a privilege. Like anything in life, you need to approach it with the right mindset and let’s be the best that we can be every single day. Let’s get better every single day in practice. Let’s show up every night ready to compete. If we do that, great things are going to happen. That was our approach last year.”
And, as the coach would say, a little bit later “great things happened.” Indeed they did.
The Aggies were picked to finish ninth a year ago with a completely new coaching staff. USU liked being the underdog and used that for motivation the whole season. Having won 17 of their last 18 games heading to the Big Dance having and received the highest seed ever in school history at No. 8, the Aggies will not be overlooked this upcoming season.
“Our guys have a bit of a bitter taste in the way it ended,” Smith said of the 78-61 loss to Washington in the NCAA Tournament. “We have a great core, a great nucleus back. The biggest difference is last year we were one of the least experienced teams with some unproven guys. This year we know what to expect, and these guys need to take the next step and improve their game. Plus, we have a good blend of new guys to add. ... We have a great core and will rely on that leadership.”
Looking at his roster, Smith has to smile. Sure, there will be some growing pains with some freshmen and the normal getting used to the speed of the game for junior college transfers, but overall the coach feels USU will be more athletic. The Aggies will be taller with the addition of some big guys.
One name along the front court that pops out, other than Queta, is Justin Bean. The 6-foot-7 sophomore-to-be really came on down the stretch last season, providing a big spark off the bench.
“There are a lot of guys that you can say really got better last year, but you could argue Bean was the most improved from day one to the NCAA Tournament game,” Smith said. “He really came on like gangbusters and had some huge games for us. He is the consummate team guy. ... Down the stretch last year, he was playing as much as about anybody. He played most of the final 12 minutes of the conference tournament championship game. We have high expectations for Bean.”
Like Bean, Diogo Brito also drew high praise for his play off the bench. Brito will be a senior this upcoming season.
“Diogo Brito played his best basketball the last four to six weeks of the season,” Smith said. “He is a right place, right time of guy all of the time. He gets every loose ball. He is a stat stuffer — a guy that can rebound, a very good passer and a guy that can score. He continually gets better all of the time and has good size. He makes everybody better.”
Point guard Abel Porter, who has already graduated, also adds experience and leadership. Once he was inserted into the starting lineup, the Aggies went 14-2.
“Guys love playing with him,” Smith said of Porter. “Abel is not afraid of anything. He is a competitor and a high IQ guy. He plays with such poise and composure.”
Several newcomers fall into the versatile category and can play multiple spots. They include junior college transfer Alphonso Anderson, a forward, and Bairstow, a guard.
“We are one of the biggest teams in the country,” Smith said. “We have three 7-footers on our roster. We have tremendous length, good athleticism. Sam Merrill will be the second shortest guy on our team, and he is a legit 6-4.5 to 6-5.”
Queta is listed at 7-foot, as is Trevin Dorius, who just returned from a mission for his church after redshirting a year at USU. The tallest Aggie will be JC transfer Kuba Karwowski at 7-2.
Finding playing time for so many talented athletes will be a challenge for Smith and his staff.
“Having talented depth is a great thing and something you want,” Smith said. “Last year we played 11 guys for a long time. No one has a crystal ball to know who’s going to thrive. ... We have high expectations for all of them. I don’t think anyone is going to shock us. They are all talented enough and fit our style for how we play.”