With one of the most anticipated seasons for Aggie men’s basketball coming up, the team began preparation for the 2019-20 campaign this week.

Utah State athletes and second-year head coach Craig Smith were made available to the media following a practice on Thursday. One of the biggest questions that still isn’t answered is will all-league center Neemias Queta be ready to play come November. He injured his left knee playing for his home country of Portugal in a U20 European tournament.

“I don’t know yet, we are still figuring it out,” said Queta, when asked about his return. “... It feels way better than it was. I just feel like it is only going to get better from now on.”

Queta did not practice Thursday, but did work out with the strength coach.

“It’s not that serious,” Queta said. “I hope I will be back soon.”

So do Aggie fans.

Smith is hopeful the 2019 Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year will be back soon. He is also not counting on it, just to make sure the team is prepared if it takes the big man a little longer to get back.

“It’s the million-dollar question of where he stands and how he is doing,” Smith said of Queta. “Coaches are paid to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Quite frankly, that’s where I’m at. We are preparing just not knowing where he will be.

“That being said, his rehab is going great. Neemie has handled this whole thing so well. ... We had high praise for him last year, but his true character has come out. Not one time has he hung his head or had fear, worry or doubt. At least he has shown that. He has attacked his rehab with vigor and by all accounts on track to come back.”

Smith said the paranoid part of coaching is preparing to not have him, and the coach feels good about the players on the roster. Queta does too.

“I trust my teammates and know what they are capable of,” Queta said. “Whatever happens, happens for a reason. We just take it like that.”

Reigning Mountain West Player of the Year Sam Merrill wants Queta in the lineup, but also feels good about the rest of the big men on the team.

“We will be all right,” Merrill said. “We have enough guys that know what they are doing. We have an assortment of bigs that we can work through, and we can go small if we want to. We will be OK.”

And Merrill’s take on the first day practice?

“I thought we had a really good day,” Merrill said. “It’s exciting to be back. ... I thought we had a really good day. Now we need to progress.”

And Merrill is not getting caught up in the hype, especially his photo being on the cover of some preseason magazines, which he was asked about on Thursday.

“I don’t know; I had never even heard of the magazine,” Merrill said. “I’m really not worried about that. I’m just excited to go out there and get to work, and get to play again.

“My first two offseasons felt really, really short. This one has felt so long. I think as a group we are just so excited to get out there and go play again. All the expectations and all the pressure, we are excited for that. We want to get out there and show people that we really can live up to those expectations.”

The coach was also excited to get going again.

“It is hard to believe that it is this time of year,” Smith said. “We have a lot of new faces. Our guys have really gotten better over the summer and now we’re almost into October. It’s hard to believe that we’ll be playing games in about 40 days from now.”

Merrill had a good take on the difference from a year ago, when the Aggies were picked to finish near the bottom of the MW.

“We are going to practice the exact same way we did last year,” Merrill said. “The only difference is we know we are good. Last preseason I thought we were good, but I wasn’t sure. I could tell by the way we were practicing, the way we worked and the chemistry we were developing we had a chance to be good.”

Aggie women

The USU women had its first official practice on Thursday. With some players leaving the program during the offseason, there will be new faces on the squad. Two starters are back and three other letterwinners from a team that went 17-16 last year, including a 10-8 mark in the MW.

“It’s going good, but it definitely takes some time to get into playing with new players, when I’ve played with other players for longer,” senior Hailey Bassett said. “I feel like our season is going to be really good.”

Bassett is the most veteran player back. She averaged 9.1 points and 3.9 rebounds a game during the 2018-19 season. The guard/forward will be called upon to be a leader more than before this year.

“I’ve never been a vocal kind of a leader, but have been told I’ve been an example kind of leader with working hard, running on my own, doing the extra stuff,” Bassett said. “I’m working on being more vocal for the team this year.”

Also back this year will be sophomore guard Steph Gorman, who averaged 6.9 points and 2.1 rebounds per game last year.

“I feel like our 3-point game is really good,” Bassett said. “In scrimmaging and the summer workouts, I feel like attacking the basket has been a lot better than it has been. We have a lot more aggressive-type players that just want to get to the basket and score.”

The Aggies competed in the Women’s Basketball Invitational for the team’s ninth postseason appearance in program history, posting the program’s first postseason victory since the 2010-11 season in the opening round of the WBI with a 68-60 triumph over UC Riverside. Bassett has bigger plans for her senior season.

“I am definitely hoping we make it to the (NCAA) tournament,” Bassett said. “My main goal is to take every game one by one and do our best. ... I want to leave every game with no regrets.”

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Shawn Harrison is the sports editor at The Herald Journal. He can be reached at sharrison@hjnews.com or 435-792-7233.

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