With the college basketball teams about to start official practices next week, the hype at Utah State is beginning to build for the men’s squad.

Preseason publications have the Aggies returning to the Big Dance. They shocked many last season going on a run to share the regular season title in the Mountain West, and then winning the league tournament to earn the automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. USU was rewarded with the highest seed in school history at No. 8.

Despite having a memorable season by winning 17 of 18 games before the NCAA Tournament, the Aggies exited the 2018-19 campaign with a bad taste in their collective mouths. They lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Washington.

With league MVP Sam Merrill back for his senior season as well as MW Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year Neemias Queta, USU is garnering national respect that hasn’t been seen in years, perhaps decades. Athlon Magazine came out with its college basketball edition and tabbed the Aggies as a Sweet Sixteen team. In its mock bracket, USU was a No. 4 seed. The magazine had the Aggies winning their first two games at the Big Dance and losing to Duke. USU last won a game in the NCAA Tournament in 2001.

ESPN’s Bracketolgy also has the Aggies in the Big Dance in 2020. That early listing has USU as a No. 6 seed.

The Aggies finished the regular season last March being ranked No. 25. Many preseason polls have USU as high as No. 15 starting the 2019-20 campaign.

Four starters from last season’s team that went 28-7 are back. Joining Merrill and Queta are junior guard Abel Porter and sophomore guard Brock Miller. USU returns two more contributors from a season ago in senior guard Diogo Brito, who was in the running for the Sixth Man award in the MW, and sophomore forward Justin Bean. That group will be joined by three returning redshirts and six newcomers.

Queta declared for the NBA draft and earned a spot at the NBA Draft Combine. He elected to return to USU. Queta spent his summer leading his native Portugal to the title of the FIBA U20 European Championships Division B.

USU head coach Craig Smith won more games than any other first-year head coach in the country and more than any other head coach in their inaugural year in USU history. Smith was named the MW Coach of the Year, in addition to earning USBWA District VIII and NABC District 17 Coach of the Year accolades.

The Aggies will begin practice on Monday. The first game is Wednesday, Oct. 30, when USU hosts the College of Idaho in an exhibition contest.

TEAM OF THE YEAR

The USU men’s basketball team was named the 2019 Team of the Year by the Utah chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society on Wednesday night in Salt Lake City. The Dinner of Champions is the National MS Society’s premier gala event and pays tribute to the vast network of generous corporations, organizations and volunteer leaders who are dedicated to making a difference in the lives of people living with MS.

Utah State finished the 2018-19 season with the third-most wins in school history (28). The Aggies also broke school records in points and blocks. They scored 2,753 points, passing the previous school standard of 2,619 points set during the 1969-70 season. USU logged 147 rejections during the year, led by a school-record performance of 84 blocks by Queta, to break the old school record of 142 blocks set during the 2014-15 campaign.

USU won its first Mountain West title in men’s basketball since joining the league in 2013-14, capturing both the regular season and tournament titles. Merrill, who was named the MW Player of the Year and MW Tournament MVP, also garnered national attention, earning AP honorable mention all-American honors.

 

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