College basketball season is fast approaching.
Teams can begin on Nov. 25, which is exactly what the Utah State men and women will be doing. The Aggie men open against Wichita State in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in the first round of the Bad Boy Mower Crossover Classic. The women host Montana in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum with no fans allowed because of COVID-19.
During the virtual Mountain West Men’s Basketball Media Day, USU head coach Craig Smith was asked several times about the guard situation. The Aggies lost three veterans in Sam Merrill, Diogo Brito and Abel Porter Jr. As the coach prepares for his third season at the helm, he admitted to spending nights this past summer thinking about that very thing.
“You don’t just go replace Sam Merrill, arguably the best Aggie basketball player to ever put on a uniform. Certainly he belongs on our Mount Rushmore,” Smith said. “It’s not often you get to coach a guy that is the second all-time scorer and second all-time leader in assists, not to mention that he guarded the other team’s best perimeter player every night. Diogo Brito also did that. Diogo and Sam are guys that played four years here and played a ton of minutes. Then you throw in Abel Porter, who hadn’t played a whole lot until two years ago, then started playing a ton of minutes and was really a stabilizing force on the floor.
“Losing those three guys is roughly 47 percent of our minutes played, 46 percent of scoring load, and they had great synergy together,”
With eight freshmen, including redshirt Liam McChesney, there is plenty of youth on the Aggie roster. Add to that junior guard Marco Anthony, who sat out last season after transferring from Virginia, and you have nine athletes who have never played in a USU uniform.
“There are going to be a lot of new faces,” Smith said. “Other guys have got to step up. Our returning guys, Justin Bean has to be a little bit better, Neemias Queta has to be better, Alphonso Anderson has to be better. Brock Miller has to take the next step and Sean Bairstow too. All of those guys have to play like upperclassmen now. We love our young guys. It’s a great freshman group. They are still going to be freshmen, so you are always dealing with that. Our upperclassmen have done a great job of leading the way, letting them know what our culture is and letting them know what is acceptable and what’s not.”
But what about that backcourt? Anthony is expected to start, while Miller, a junior, has started in 64 games and seen action in 74 during his career at USU. Bairstow, a sophomore, played in 32 games a year ago, averaging about 10 minutes a game. Then there are five freshmen.
“We are going to be inexperienced in the backcourt, but I like our talent level, I like our camaraderie, I like our competitive spirit,” Smith said. “We will see what happens. A guy like Marco Anthony, who played at Virginia and his sophomore year there they won the national title ... Marco didn’t play a lot, but has been at a great program. Him having a chance to redshirt last year and get accustomed to our style, our terminology, how we do things, helped him. I’m excited about those guys, but they have to prove it on the floor.”
Pressed a bit about who would run the point, Smith didn’t name anyone.
“To be determined,” Smith said. “We have quite a few guys that can play that position. I would say we are looking at four to five guys. I’m not sure it will be exactly one guy. ... It will be a little bit by committee. We are still duking it out to see who is going to take the reins in that spot. … I view it as a spot of strength. I really like where we are at with that position.”
Bean was also asked about the point guard position.
“Everyone is unselfish and plays for each other and no one is trying to get theirs, so it makes it really easy to have different guys that can pass the ball and shoot it well,” Bean said. “We have versatility and depth at that position (point guard). I’m excited to see what we can do there.”
With Bean, Queta and Anderson back, the frontcourt will obviously be a strength.
“Justin Bean, Neemias Queta, Alphonso Anderson, I like some of our other big guys that have made improvements over the summer and we’ve added some depth with incoming freshmen like Szymon Zapala,” Smith said. “I like where we are at.”
Getting the ball to those guys will be vital.
“We are just going to be different,” Smith said. “I believe in all of our young guys. If I didn’t I wouldn’t have recruited them. … It’s a huge adjustment going from the high school ranks to this level. The Mountain West Conference is high level basketball.
“... You don’t just replace a guy like Sam Merrill, but I think the sum of the parts do. It takes a team to win, whether it’s your frontcourt, your backcourt, your power forwards, your small forwards. You have got to have everybody on board. I think one of the biggest strengths this year will be the versatility of our team. We can play big, we can play small. We are much more athletic than we have been the last two years. We will see what recipe is best for the Aggies to have the best team that we can possibly have.”
Plus, who knows how this season will be as teams deal with COVID-19. Smith expects games to be canceled or rescheduled. Teams will also have to deal with being short-handed at times if players test positive.
“We don’t know who is going to be available for a given game so everyone has got to know multiple positions and be able to play in different spots,” Bean said. “That’s the great thing about our team is that we can play a big lineup or a small lineup. Ultimately, we have that trust in each other. Whatever the circumstance, we will be ready.”
Once the Mountain West schedule rolls around, playing the same team within three days will also be new for the 2020-21 season. Smith shrugged it off, listing his experience as a coach at the NAIA and Division II level where teams play on back-to-back days.
“At least we will have a day off,” Smith quipped. “… You make the best of your situation. This will cut road trips in half so we won’t have the grind of playing and traveling. … This year we just have to be ready for everything.”
While the full schedule still hasn’t been worked out — there are games at home against BYU and Dixie State, and a game at Weber State in December — the Aggies do know who they play next Wednesday.
“Our non-conference schedule still isn’t done; it’s a work in progress,” Smith said. “We are always trying to put our guys in a great situation where we play quality teams. We want to play high-ranking teams. Last year beating LSU and Florida in non-conference play really helped us. We’re excited to get rolling. Three games in three days, let’s see what we are made of.”