A week ago Aggie head men’s basketball coach Craig Smith sat down and talked about his first season at the Utah State helm.
There were a variety of topics discussed when looking back at the 28-7 season USU had. It was totally unexpected the Aggies would make a run to the Mountain West regular season title — shared with Nevada — being nationally ranked heading to the conference tournament, winning the MW tournament and going to the NCAA Tournament. The team set a goal to do all of those things, but most outside of the program didn’t think that would happen.
It did, and the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum was rockin’ by the end of the season — another promise Smith made to Aggie faithful when he was hired.
Between recruiting, spending some time with family and going back to work in preparation for next season, Smith spent a little time reflecting on the past campaign.
HJ: What have you been up to since the NCAA Tournament?
Smith: Vacation (laughs). It’s amazing how the finality of it is after the NCAA Tournament. It’s done. You are sitting in the locker room, and it’s over. It was such a magical ride, all year. Even though we return a decent amount of guys, it’s still the last game or moment with those guys in uniform. And you lose Dwayne Brown and Quinn (Taylor). It will be different dynamics.
Anyway, you get back on the road recruiting, go to the Final Four and now back on the road and then we have a dead period. ... You are always recruiting all year.
HJ: Have you had time to reflect back much on the last season?
Smith: Yeah, on some of the plane rides. It was such a magical year. The way we lost in the first round game (at the NCAA Tournament) to Washington was hard. Washington played great, but I’m not sure we were at our best, but Washington had a lot to do with that. We had lost one game in 18 games. That was basically our second loss in two months, so it was a disappointing ending to a magical season.
But to think back and reflect, there is a lot of hardware. ... It’s fun to talk about being 28-7, all the history we made and being ranked in the last poll in the Top 25. What a great accomplishment for the young men in our program.
HJ: What was the best win during the 2018-19 season.
Smith: I’ve been asked that few times, and I’m not sure I can pinpoint one because I truly believe it is about the journey. You could argue our best win of the year was our first at Montana State when we had barely beat them last year and now we are on the road. The program had won two games on the road the year before and all these new guys. There were a lot of unknowns, so I thought that was a huge win.
I thought the Utah Valley was a huge win. St. Mary’s was a monster win because that got us to 5-0 and our second win away from home. St. Mary’s is such a nationally recognized program. People took notice of that. That gave us a validation. You can go right down the line, beating Nevada and San Diego State at home. ... You could argue beating San Diego State in the conference tournament championship. That was pretty big too.
Nobody will say this, but as a coach you could argue our win at Wyoming was a huge win because we had just lost on a last-second shot to Fresno and was 1-2 in conference play, and hadn’t won at Wyoming in forever. ... Winning at the Pit against New Mexico on Abel Porter’s shot. After that game, we really thought we could do this. Somehow we kind of pulled a rabbit out a hat and won that game. We just took off.
HJ: After the New Mexico game, you could tell the team did believe it could win, right?
Smith: That New Mexico game set us up to understand that we can find ways to win. Before, we were hoping, but necessarily believing. It helped us at Boise State. That was a magical game and set up the San Diego State and Nevada wins. Every game for us was like a playoff game.
HJ: You don’t have a lot to chose from, but what was your toughest loss?
Smith: Washington was really tough. People will say, well you got there, but the further you get, the harder it is to lose, because you realize you are so close. We lose seven times and they were all tough. We played tough against Arizona State, laid an egg at BYU. We were up 10 at Houston and competed really good. Fresno State was a dagger and concerned me. But the Washington one, we were playing really good and had such good mojo going. That was the most disappointing one.
HJ: Other than Jon Knight III leaving, it didn’t seem like you had to deal with much drama. Even that didn’t seem to disrupt the team. Was there really no drama?
Smith: We had very, very little drama. You go through some ups and downs and you try to negotiate it the best you can as a coach. Good teams are coached by coaches, great teams are coached by players, and I do believe that. Our leadership was really good. We had some young, hungry guys. That will be a great challenge for next year.
HJ: What are your thoughts on Neemias Queta declaring for the NBA Draft?
Smith: He has earned the right to test the waters and get feedback from the NBA. He is a great person and obviously a very talented guy. We will help him and support him. He is intelligent and made the right decision for himself and his family.
HJ: You go from being underdogs to probably the favorites in the Mountain West next season, depending on what Queta decides. Some of these early polls have Utah State in the Top 20. How do you deal with the success and having a target on you in 2019-20?
Smith: Every year is different. As a coach, I never get caught up in all of that. I’ve always said this, polls tell you the respect you’ve earned. Obviously, we didn’t have a whole lot of respect going into last year. We’ve earned some respect. But you need to understand, they are just polls. ... You need to eliminate the noise and lock into what is important.
We have a group of really driven guys and, as a whole, really mature guys. You just need to constantly cultivate your culture. The guys have high expectations. As good of a season as it was last season, and it was a magical one and one I certainly will never forget, at the same time these guys are driven. We gave the guys two weeks off after the season, and I walk in a week later and on one end of the gym is Sam Merrill working out, and on the other end is Diogo Brito working out. Our guys are hungry. We have a bit of chip on our shoulder. We didn’t like how we went out. That’s not me talking. That’s a common theme from our guys.
HJ: One never knows what will happen in the future, but with success comes opportunities. What are your thoughts on bigger schools coming after you?
Smith: It’s part of the ball game. I’ve always believed in making your position the best you can make it. Whatever happens, happens. I don’t waste one second worrying about that kind of stuff. I don’t have conversations with the staff. People ask me what my dream job is and I say Utah State. It’s a complete waste of time to think about this, that and the other. I don’t have a crystal ball. I know this, when momma is happy, everybody is happy. And momma is really happy.
HJ: How is next year’s schedule coming along?
Smith: We are always working on the schedule. We had a good schedule last year and we are trying to get another good schedule. It’s a different set of circumstances this year. Last year we had a ton of teams that wanted to play us. It’s a little bit different now, but we have some good opportunities finishing with a top 30 NET ranking last year. It’s a tedious process and may not be done with it until August.