As the Utah State men’s basketball team begins its second week of practice, the Aggies know once the season begins the spotlight will be on them.

Unlike a year ago when most thought USU would finish near the bottom of the Mountain West standings, the Aggies will begin the 2019-20 season as the favorites. Reigning conference Player of the Year Sam Merrill has already said that the team plans on approaching practices and games the same as they did a year ago.

But there is a difference when you are have a target on your back as the team to beat compared to the underdog. USU players and coaches want to continue to play the underdog card, but that just won’t be the case during the upcoming campaign.

“There’s certainly more size on the team,” Merrill said. “Half the time in practice I can’t go anywhere because we are so long and really big. Each guy brings something different to the table. ... As long as we are unselfish as a group, then our offense and our defense will work out.”

The Aggies tied for the regular season title and won the Mountain West Tournament last spring to earn the automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.

“I don’t feel any difference,” said center Neemias Queta, who was the MW Defensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year. “I don’t think we are focused on that. We are just focused on trying to be better every day. ... We need to have the same mindset as we had last year, work hard and that will help us win.

“... We don’t have anything to prove. We need to try and be the best team every day on the court like we did last year.”

Like Merrill mentioned, the Aggies have grown much taller than a year ago. However, there is a big loss in the graduation of forward Quinn Taylor.

“Quinn Tayler was a vital part of our team last year,” USU head coach Craig Smith said. “He started at the four, but was our backup five and brought a totally different look and big-time experience.”

Queta is still working his way back from a knee injury that happened in the summer. Junior college transfer Kuba Karwowski, who is 7-foot-2, and 7-foot freshman Trevin Dorius are “getting better” and “making great strides,” Smith said. Klay Stall (6-10) and Roche Grootfaam (6-7) missed last season with injuries, but will be called upon as well to play the four and five positions.

“It’s like figuring out a jigsaw puzzle,” Smith said. “We are trying to put players together on the floor to have success. We call it the ‘winning style.’” We need to have a team that is able to win 61-59 ... or 100-96. We need speed, agility and size. We need to figure out the right combinations together.”

But the team is much taller throughout. Queta, a 7-footer himself, has noticed a big difference from last season.

“It’s different,” Queta said. “We have a lot of new guys a lot of big bodies. It should be really hard for people to score against us.”

Abel Porter is the shortest Aggie at 6-3.

Porter is one of the six returning players that played a lot during the 2018-19 season.

“It’s such a weird dynamic,” Merrill said. “Some guys you know exactly what they are going to do like Diogo (Brito), Brock (Miller) and Abel (Porter). These new guys you have to develop chemistry. Us as returners have to be patient and work with them.”

Merrill said the team is “tight knit” and spends time together away from the practice gym.

“The chemistry on the court will come as long as there is good chemistry off the court,” Merrill said.

“We really have nine new guys,” Smith said. “It’s easy to see the chemistry when our returners are playing, then you add some of the new guys and it’s, ‘Oh boy.’ It just takes some time. It’s a great group of guys. It seems like we have good chemistry.”

Merrill feels it is simple.

“This year is the same thing as last year,” Merrill said. “We need to develop chemistry with the new guys. We are working hard. If we do what we are supposed to do, we are going to have another successful year.”

But will the Aggies win as many games as they did last year? The non-conference schedule is even better than 2018-19.

“We are excited for it,” Merrill said of the schedule. “We have lots of big games. Our coaches did a really good job putting together a schedule. I know it was hard. I know not a lot of teams want to play us. We’re excited for it and it will be a good opportunity to put our names out there. ... We are going to work right now with the goal of winning a Mountain West championship. Hopefully we can steal a few if not all those preseason games.”

Obviously, the top priority is to repeat as MW champs. But doing well against good teams like the Aggies did a year ago helps come NCAA Tournament selection time if USU is trying to get an at-large berth.

“We are really excited about our schedule,” Smith said. “Scheduling is one of the most difficult things that we do. It’s literally a day-to-day deal. ... It’s very difficult to schedule games and very, very difficult to get people to come to Logan. That’s a compliment. ... We believe in bring on the competition. ... We feel like we can go up against the big boys.”

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