Returning four starters from a team that tied for the regular season title and won the conference tournament certainly helped Utah State be the favorite in men’s basketball for the upcoming 2019-20 season.
In fact, the Aggies garnered every first-place vote in the preseason poll that the Mountain West Conference released Tuesday morning. The media who cover the league voted, and all 17 that participated marked USU at the top of their ballot. The unanimous pick was the first time a team has received every first place vote since the inaugural year of the MW in 1999, when Utah did from the media. There used to be two polls, but a coaches’ poll no longer exists.
“The Mountain West has a rich tradition of excellence in men’s basketball,” USU head men’s basketball coach Craig Smith said in a press release. “It is humbling to be the first MW program to be unanimously ranked as the preseason favorites to win the MW championship.”
The Aggies finished with 187 points. USU is followed by San Diego State (150), New Mexico (141), Nevada (135) and Boise State (128), Fresno State (103), UNLV (89), Air Force (76), Colorado State (59), Wyoming (36) and San José State (17).
“We aren’t really into polls and rankings in our program,” Smith said. “This team hasn’t proven anything and our goal is to be on top of the MW at the end of the year.”
Guard Sam Merrill was named the Preseason Player of the Year. The senior earned Player of the Year accolades at the end of last season, as well as being named the tournament MVP. Merrill also found out on Tuesday that he was named to the Jerry West Award Watch List, an annual award recognizing the top shooting guard in Division I men’s collegiate basketball. A national committee of top college basketball personnel determined the watch list of 20 candidates for that award.
Merrill and Aggie center Neemias Queta were both named to the Preseason All-Mountain West Team. Queta is the reigning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, as well at the Freshman of the Year.
The USU duo are joined on the All-Mountain West Team by Air Force forward Lavelle Scottie, Boise State guard Derrick Alston and Colorado State forward Nico Carvacho. Malachi Flynn of San Diego State was named the Preseason Newcomer of the Year, and K.J. Hymes of Nevada was named the Preseason Freshman of the Year.
Merrill led the Aggies in scoring last season with 20.9 points per game. He finished the year with 731 points, the fifth-most in a single season in USU history. Merrill also led the Aggies with 147 assists, averaging 4.2 per contest.
Merrill was also named third-team All-American by Stadium, AP honorable mention All-American, first-team all-Mountain West, first-team all-District 17 by the National Association of Basketball Coaches and all-District VIII by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. The senior will enter the 2019-20 season with 1,568 career points and could become just the fourth Aggie in the history of the program to eclipse 2,000 career points.
Queta was one of just 66 players in the nation invited to the NBA Draft Combine last season. He shattered the single-season blocks record at USU. He finished the year with 84 blocks, far surpassing the previous school record of 59, set by Shawn Daniels during the 2000-01 season. Queta led the MW and finished 14th in the nation with 2.4 blocks per contest. He started the year with at least one block in 29 straight games, the longest such streak in USU history, and recorded at least one rejection in all but one game during the year.
In addition to his defense, Queta finished second on the team with 11.8 points per game and led the team with 8.9 rebounds per game. He scored in double figures in 24 games and logged a team-best 10 double-doubles during the year. Queta’s team-leading 312 rebounds during the year marked the first time an Aggie has surpassed 300 rebounds in a season since the 1976-77 campaign and marked a new USU freshman record.
The Aggies return six letterwinners and four starters. Merrill and Queta are joined by sophomore guard Brock Miller, who started in every game last season, and junior guard Abel Porter, who started at the point in each of the final 17 games last season and led the Aggies to a 15-2 record over that stretch.
The Aggies also benefit in the return of senior guard Diogo Brito, one of only three players returning in the MW that played in more than 30 games last season and averaged more than 8.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.0 steals per game. Sophomore forward Justin Bean rounds out the returners for the Aggies, saving one of his top performances of the year for the opening round of the MW Tournament a season ago after finishing with his first career double-double of 14 points and 15 rebounds against New Mexico.
The six returners represented a large part of the Aggies’ success in 2019-20, accounting for 76.2 percent of the blocks, 73.6 percent of the assists, 73.4 percent of the points, 71.3 percent of the minutes, 68.8 percent of the steals and 60.4 percent of the rebounds logged during the 2018-19 campaign.
The returners are complemented by three returning redshirts in senior forward Roche Grootfaam, junior center Klay Stall and freshman center Trevin Dorius. Grootfaam and Stall were both in the program last year, but were rehabbing injuries, while Dorius was with the Aggies during the 2015-16 season and recently returned from a two-year LDS Church Mission in Arizona.
The roster is rounded out by six newcomers, including junior guard Marco Anthony, a transfer from Virginia, junior guard Carson Bischoff, a transfer from Treasure Valley Community College, junior center Kuba Karwowski, a transfer from North Platte Community College, and junior forward Alphonso Anderson, a transfer from North Idaho College. Guard Sean Bairstow and forward Liam McChesney are the lone true freshmen on the squad.