He wasn’t the Player of the Year in the Mountain West Conference, but Sam Merrill certainly left his mark at the league tournament this past weekend.
He was named the MW Tournament MVP. The Aggie guard also had a pretty good season, garnering first-team accolades from the media and the coaches. On Tuesday, the 6-foot-5 Utah State basketball player was selected as the U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) District VIII Player of the Year. Merrill was also named all-District VIII by the USBWA, marking the second consecutive year he has been recognized with that honor.
“Nothing surprises me with him any more,” USU head coach Craig Smith said of Merrill at the conference tournament. “He’s just the ultimate winner and competitor and he grew up an Aggie, and it means so much to him. He has so much pride. The dude shows up every day to play, no matter if it’s a 45-minute workout, an hour-and-a-half practice or a three-hour practice. We run sprints when we lose, and he wins that sprint every time. ... I get a little animated because I love that guy. He’s just everything that a college athlete is about.”
BYU’s Mark Pope was named the USBWA Coach of the Year. In his first season as their head coach, Pope led the Cougars to a 24-8 record and a national ranking of No. 14. BYU entered the AP Poll for the first time on Feb. 17 and the USA Today Coaches Poll on Feb. 24. It marks the first time the program is ranked since the 2010-11 season.
Ten athletes were named to the All-District VIII Team. They included: Timmy Allen, Utah; Trevon Allen, Idaho; Yoeli Childs, BYU; Bryce Hamilton, UNLV; Jerrick Harding, Weber State; Jalen Harris, Nevada; Merrill; Sayeed Pridgett, Montana; Trevelin Queen, New Mexico State; an McKinley Wright IV, Colorado.
All-District Teams are based on voting from the USBWA’s national membership of 900-plus. The USBWA has selected All-District Teams since the 1956-57 season, its founding year. For each of the nine geographic districts, 10 players are selected (11 in the case of ties in the voting) as well as a player and coach of the year.
Merrill led the Aggies in scoring this season, averaging 19.7 points per game, to rank second in the Mountain West. Merrill became just the sixth player in conference history and just the fourth player in USU history to surpass 2,000 career points, totaling 2,197 points to rank second in both MW and USU history.
It was Merrill’s 3-point bucket in the waning seconds against San Diego State in the MW Tournament Championship that sealed the Aggies’ NCAA Tournament berth and gave USU its second consecutive MW Tournament title. Merrill became the first player in league history to win back-to-back Mountain West Tournament MVP accolades.
“He (Merrill) makes everybody better and gives everybody confidence,” Smith said. “... He is the most unselfish star I’ve ever been around. I think he brings so much confidence because he’s so humble.”
Merrill has scored in double figures in all but one game this season and netted 20 or more points in each of the last three games and in three of the final five of the regular season, including a season-high 32 points at Colorado State on Feb. 11.
In addition to his scoring, Merrill also lead the Aggies this season in assists, averaging 3.9 helpers per game. Merrill is fourth on the team in rebounding at 4.1 per contest. For the year, Merrill has shot 46.1 percent from the floor, 41.0 percent from behind the 3-point line and a MW-best 89.3 percent at the free throw line. In fact, Merrill’s free throw percentage ranks 12th in the nation, while his 150 makes at the charity stripe ranks 22nd.
Merrill and the Aggies are waiting to find out their opponent and location for the NCAA Tournament, which will be announced during the NCAA Men’s Basketball Selection show on Sunday at 4 p.m. on CBS.