COLUMBUS, Ohio — With players from seven different states and three different countries, the Aggie men’s basketball team could have potentially had some issues coming together.
At least that is how some media wondered and asked members of the Utah State team during a press conference session Thursday at Nationwide Arena. The 25th-ranked Aggies take on Washington in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday.
The first question the USU players took was about how they have come together and who chooses the music in the locker room.
“Playing basketball brings people together that you’d never meet outside of basketball,” said Aggie senior forward Quinn Taylor, who is from Texas. “We’re fortunate enough to have people from all over the U.S. and all over the world. I think the love of the game has really brought us together. Generally, we rotate through who has the music in the locker room. It’s a brotherhood and people that I’ll consider brothers for the rest of my life.”
“I think it’s been pretty natural,” said sophomore guard Abel Porter, who is from Utah. “Sometimes you can feel a team forcing being friends, but I feel like this year it’s been really big that we establish a culture and family at Utah State. I feel like we have done that really well.”
USU sent four players to the press conference, and each as asked about coming together.
“I think it has been incredibly helpful as far as developing the chemistry,” said junior guard Sam Merrill, who is from Utah. “I think because we all come from so many different backgrounds, it keeps us away from developing any type of clique or anything like that. … We also have American-born players that are bilingual. That’s helped. I assume it’s helped with our Portuguese players, and it’s been a fun experience getting to know each other.”
“We’re a group of guys that love to play basketball,” said freshman center Neemias Queta, who is from Portugal. “We all love to play basketball, and we all love to play with each other. … We just love playing with each other and that helps a lot. We don’t have egos. We just love each other and we love playing basketball. That’s it. It’s simple.”
ACCOLADES FOR MERRILL
Having already picked up Player of the Year honors from the media that cover the MW and the league coaches, Merrill went on to earn MVP of the MW Tournament. He was just the fifth player in MW history to be named the Player of the Year and then win the conference tournament’s MVP award.
He was also one of 10 players named to the USBWA All-District VIII team.
The awards keep pouring in as Merrill was named one of the top 50 college basketball players for the 2018-19 season by si.com. The junior was also named a third-team All-American by Stadium TV.
“The country’s going to see one of the best players in the county play tomorrow,” USU head coach Craig Smith said of Merrill. “... Guys love playing with him. When your best player is your hardest worker, everybody falls in line.”
Smith talked for a good length of time about the junior and joked about going on for another 10 minutes if the media wanted.
AGGIE STREAKING STATS
During its 10-game winning streak, USU is averaging 79.2 points a game, while shooting 46.5 percent from the floor, 34.5 percent from 3-point range and 74.5 percent from the free throw line. The Aggies are also outrebounding opponents 40.3-32.1.
Over the last five games, Merrill has scored 20 or more points and is averaging 27.2 ppg. Neemias Queta is averaging 13.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 1.8 assists, while shooting 55.3 percent from the field during the same timespan. Diogo Brito is averaging 12.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists over the last six games.
NO PUSH-UPS THIS TIME
Washington players Matisse Thybulle and Jaylen Nowell were asked to share any interesting moments with second-year head coach Mike Hopkins.
“One thing he (Hopkins) does a lot and we don’t think about it any more, he’ll drop and do push-ups for no reason,” Thybulle said. “He’ll just get really excited and start doing push-ups. He’s done it at press conferences. Push-ups are his thing.”
When Hopkins came into the media area, the moderator told him he would leave it up to the coach whether he wanted to do any push-ups. He smiled. Hopkins must not have gotten too excited, because he didn’t drop and do any.
The Aggie head coach was asked about the seven returned missionaries on his roster and if that has helped a young team because of their maturity.
“It’s been fantastic because all of those guys are just incredible people, first and foremost,” Smith said. “Generally speaking, they are a couple of years older. There’s certainly a sense of maturity. Communication skills are tremendous.”
Smith went on to talk about Taylor and referred to him as the godfather or the grandfather, “either one suffices.” The 25-year-old Taylor has been a big help for Queta, a true freshman.
The seven served missions for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Those seven and where they served are: Merrill (Nicaragua), Crew Ainge (Louisiana), Taylor (Brazil), Justin Bean (Nevada), Brock Miller (Argentina), Porter (Russia) and Alek Johnson (California).
WHY UTAH STATE
The four Aggie players at the press conference were asked to share a little about USU and why they chose to become Aggies. Here are their responses:
“Utah State had a rich tradition in basketball,” Taylor said. “I feel like each one of us when we got recruited, they showed us videos of the Spectrum, and it’s just a crazy atmosphere. You want to play at a school like that, where you have the community behind you. And for me, being that I was going to go on a mission for my church, Utah State deals with that. … I definitely made the right choice, and I’ve loved it ever since.”
“We’re in Logan, Utah,” Porter said. “It’s an awesome school if you ever look up the pictures. It’s really beautiful to live up against the mountains. It’s also a really good academic school. … I think a lot of us know the past and wanted to be part of bringing that back.”
“I grew up a Utah State fan,” Merrill said. “Both of my parents graduated from Utah State. For me, it was an easy choice to go play at Utah State. I felt like it was the best fit academically and basketball wise. … Utah State used to be a regular in this tournament. We’re excited to be back, and we’re excited to represent our school and our university.”
“Utah State is a school that is the perfect fit for me because they have passionate fans, good conditions, a good coaching staff and everybody at the school cares about you,” Queta said. “I really wanted to go there. … The fact that we made it here, that’s really nice too.”
TRENDS WORTH CHANGING
As the Aggies head into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in eight years, they face a few streaks they would like to end. It seems like this has been a season of doing that.
On Friday, they will get the chance to end some more negative runs.
USU is 1-8 all-time against Pac-12 opponents in the NCAA Tournament, while the MW is 1-9 all-time when playing teams from the Pac-12 at the Big Dance. It just so happens the Aggies and Huskies played each other in 2006 in San Diego. Washington won, 75-61.
This will be the first game in the Buckeye State for USU since Dec. 6, 1971, when it lost at Ohio State. The Aggies are 0-4 in games played in the state of Ohio.
ONE OF THE FIRST
Utah State was one of the eight schools that participated in the first NCAA Tournament in 1939. The other teams were Oregon, Texas, Oklahoma, Villanova, Brown, Wake Forest and Ohio State. The Aggies played in San Francisco, losing to Oklahoma and then beating Texas.