Brito 02

Utah State guard Diogo Brito (24) looks to shoot the ball as UTSA guard Erik Czumbel and guard Jhivvan Jackson (2) defend on Monday in Logan.

When was the last time the Utah State men’s basketball team had five players averaging double figures in scoring?

That’s a question that will have to be answered another day. However, the fact that the No. 15 Aggies are so well balanced is a big reason they are undefeated so far this season and very dangerous.

Basically, choose your poison. Some opponents have went out of their way to try and slow down All-American guard Sam Merrill. While that has prevented him from averaging more than 20 points a game like he did last year, it has given other USU players the chance to get open looks.

“These first five games I’ve just tried to play the game the right way, try and get guys going and be a facilitator,” Merrill said.

Merrill still leads the team in scoring with 17.4 points a game. He is joined in double-digit scoring by Justin Bean (13.2), Brock Miller (13.0), Alphonso Anderson (12.0) and Diogo Brito (11.0)

“It takes special people to have a special team,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “... Sam (Merrill) could go out and average 25 to 30 a game, but he is the most willing passer for a guy who can just score at will. When the team sees that, they start playing super unselfish because he is.”

With Anderson and Brito coming off the bench, the Aggies (5-0) have had very little drop off in offensive production. In fact, USU’s bench has outscored the combined efforts of the first five opponents, 160-85.

Three Aggies — Merrill, Miller and Anderson — have had a game with at least 20 points through five games. Four different USU players have led the team in scoring, which is not a big surprise with the averages so far.

Another factor that has certainly helped the Aggies score has been their ability to dominate on the boards. USU is at +16.4 in rebound margin. The Aggies average 5.2 more offensive rebounds per game than their opponents, which has led to a huge advantage in second-chance points. USU has 82 second-chance points so far to its opponents’ 16.

“Second-chance points and offensive rebounds have been incredible,” Merrill said. “... We have a lot of high-charter guys that play hard. Bean is big with his offensive rebounds.”

Bean and Kuba Karwowski have both grabbed double digits in offensive rebounds so far with 19 and 13, respectively. Anderson is not far behind with eight. Bean averages a team-best 11.0 rebounds a game, while Anderson is next at 6.6.

“When Bean is going hard to the boards, it has this trickle-down effect,” Smith said. “Kuba (Karwowski) starts going hard to the offensive boards, Alphonso (Anderson) goes harder to the offensive boards.”

Holding the last four teams to below 39 percent shooting from the field has also been a big key to success.

“We want our identity to be that,” said Merrill when asked about the defense. “Since the Montana State game, we have taken that mindset and understanding that we are not going to be able to out-talent every team that we play. With all the hype, expectations and rankings, we understand we are not the most talented team. We have to play the right way. I think we have the last four games.”

USU wrapped up a five-game homestand in 13 days to open the 2019-20 season on Monday with a hard-fought 82-50 win against UTSA. The Roadrunners held a 16-13 lead at one point and were in front for almost three minutes. The Aggies last trailed in a game against Weber State in the early going before blowing out the Wildcats by 55. Before UTSA, USU had not trailed at all in the past two games.

“We were settling on offense and didn’t have a purpose,” Smith said. “We didn’t have everyone back on defense in transition. ... We needed to get our mind right again.”

Which the Aggies quickly did, going on a 14-0 run and holding the Roadrunners scoreless for four-and-a-half minutes. Five different USU players scored during the run, which once again shows the balance of this team.

UTSA got within 10 points with 14 minutes to play, but the Aggies strung together runs of 6-0, 9-0, 6-0 and then finished the game with a 10-0 stretch as the Roadrunners did not score over the final four-and-a-half minutes of the contest.

“Our guys have a lot of pride,” Smith said. “We have a lot of winners on our team. When you are surrounded by great people, it is amazing what you can accomplish. This is a very hungry group, a very driven group.”

The schedule gets tougher as USU heads on the road for four games. The first two contests are at a neutral site as the Aggies head to Montego Bay, Jamaica, to take part in the Jersey Mike’s Jamaica Classic. First up for USU is a clash with LSU (3-1), which just dropped out of the Top 25, on Friday. On Sunday the Aggies take on North Texas (2-3).

The Aggies left for Jamaica on Tuesday.

“We are going to be on the road a lot over the next month and against teams that going into the year are ranked high,” Smith said. “... I think our guys are excited for every opponent. We know this team can be special and we take every game the same, prepare the same. We will go do the best that we can every night.”

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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