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Sophomore forward Jalen Moore has anchored Utah State hoops team this winter

LOGAN — Stew Morrill isn’t necessarily known as being the most superstitious basketball coach around. But when talking about the good health of Jalen Moore this season, Utah State’s head coach certainly comes across that way.

And who can blame him? The sophomore forward leads the Aggies in scoring (15.5 ppg) and rebounding (6.8 rpg) while logging a team-high 34.4 minutes a game.

“We’ve been able to keep Jalen healthy; that’s been a really big key,” Morrill says of Moore while desperately looking for a section of wood to knock on while sitting on a mostly plastic and metal chair in the Rod Tueller Team Room located deep in the bowls of the Spectrum.

“He’s been playing with a little bit of turf toe — he doesn’t talk too much about that — that’s irritating and tough to play through. But just because he’s even-keeled and soft-spoken, that doesn’t mean that he isn’t a competitor. He’s a very competitive kid, and he wants to win.”

Heading into the 2014-15 season, most people didn’t expect Moore and the Aggies to win much at all. Thanks to a large graduating class and a rare rash of defections, Utah State was tabbed to finish 10th in the 11-team Mountain West Conference.

Moore, who started a handful of games as a freshman while averaging 5.6 points, 2.7 rebounds and 17.5 minutes a night, was viewed as the one significant returnee on USU’s roster, inasmuch as senior forward Sean Harris and sophomore guards Jojo McGlaston and Viko Noma’aea combined for just 4.3 points and 17.5 minutes a game last season.

Being tabbed as the leader of such a young, inexperienced group was a lot to ask of the sophomore from North Logan, but Moore has proved to be up to the challenge. Not only is he a strong candidate to make the all-conference team, but heading into Wednesday's game at San Jose State, the Aggies (7-5 in the Mountain West, 14-10 overall) are in fifth place in the conference with six regular-season games remaining.

“I’ve tried to step up my game a little bit, and I think I’ve been able to do that,” Moore says. “I’m hoping that people are happy with that and how I’ve been playing.”

Morrill certainly is.

“Jalen’s been great,” he declares. “He’s played very well, and he’s tried to do everything he can within the framework of his makeup to be a leader. I think he’s done a good job leadership-wise, and I think he’s getting better as we go along.

“But I think his best basketball is still ahead of him.”

The youngest son of Jimmy and Debra Moore, Morrill immediately laughs when asked how long Jalen was on USU’s radar before he signed a national letter of intent to play for the Aggies just as he was starting his senior season at Sky View High in Smithfield.

“He was probably on our radar when he was about 8,” Morrill said. “We saw him every summer at our camp, and we just kept saying, ‘You know, natural progression says this kid’s gonna be a good player.’

”I always brag that I offered Jalen a scholarship and he committed before he ever started a varsity game in high school.”

Of course, Moore also had good Aggie genes on his side. His father played basketball at Utah State from 1972-75, and was inducted into the USU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2013 on the strength of his 1,164 career points and 652 career rebounds. Currently USU’s assistant athletic director for special projects, Jimmy Moore also spent two years in the NBA with the Seattle SuperSonics and a decade playing internationally before returning to Cache Valley to serve as an assistant coach under Rod Tueller and Kohn Smith.

“It’s benefitted me a lot having him as my dad,” Jalen Moore says. “He used to bring me to Utah State games at the Spectrum, and I can remember watching Jaycee (Carroll), Spencer Nelson and Nate Harris play. And then he’d point stuff out on TV from a coaching standpoint and say, ‘This is what you need to do.’

“And now, sitting up in the stands, he’s always correcting me. I feel like I have a good game sometimes, but he’ll say, ‘You played well, but here’s what you need to work on.’ He’s always helping me improve my game and get better, which I love. He does it not only from a dad standpoint, but also from what a coach would see, and I appreciate that.

“He doesn’t want me to be satisfied. He wants me to keep improving my game.”

This season, Moore’s game has been similar to that of Nelson, whom it was just announced will be joining Jimmy Moore in the USU Athletics Hall of Fame. Although he’s more explosive than Nelson, who played for the Aggies in 1999 and from 2003-05, Moore has a similar knack for filling up every corner of the stat sheet, despite regularly having to play out of position.

Like Nelson had to do for much of his career, Moore is a wing player who has been asked to play power forward due to a lack of big bodies in the frontcourt. And yet, USU has been running its offense through Moore this season, which does get him out on the perimeter quite a bit.

“I was a wing who came here and started being a post player, but that’s fine for me because I’m outside of the key a lot,” Moore says. “With our offense, I get to use my wing skills a lot. A lot of times, that’s kind of an advantage for me because actual post players have to come out and guard me.

“Of course, sometimes it’s a little hard guarding an actual post guy in the post, but I’m adjusting to it. And I like where the offense is going right now, so it’s good for me. It’s helping the team out a lot, so I don’t mind being a stretch four.”

Moore is currently second on the team in field goal percentage (.502) and 3-point percentage (.417), and is third on the Aggies' team in 3-pointers with 35. He’s also made 40 more free throws than anyone else on the team, is second in blocks with 25, and is one of the few bright spots for a USU team that has struggled to rebound the basketball all season long.

“I think by nature, Jalen’s a finesse player, and he’s got to become more physical — and he’s doing that — in terms of rebounding the ball and in terms of defending,” Morrill says. “I don’t want him to lose that finesse part of the game, but I also want him to improve his physicality so people don’t say, ‘Well, he’s just a finesse player.’”

Like this season, next year will be a season of change for Moore. His older brother Grayson, who transferred from Northwest Nazerene, will be able to play alongside him for his senior year, but Morrill will no longer be on the sidelines. After 17 seasons at Utah State and 29 as a head coach, Morrill announced last month that he will retire at the end of this season.

“It surprised me and surprised everyone because he’s one of the best coaches in college basketball, and we love playing for him,” Moore says of Morrill’s impending departure. “It’s hard to picture Utah State basketball without Stew Morrill.”

It’s also hard to picture Jalen Moore without his trademark Afro, which Morrill says he loves.

“It reminds me of some of the guys I played with at Gonzaga,” the former Bulldog says with a laugh. “I mean, it’s retro, and by age, I’m retro. It brings back some good memories of some good people that I played with.”

Moore says he started growing his hair out (and up) before his sophomore year in high school because he didn’t like how he looked with short hair.

“I had grown it out a little bit before then, and after I had tried out a bunch of different styles, I was just like, ‘The ‘fro looks best,’ so I kept it,” Moore explains.

Moore and that great head of hair exploded on both the state and national scene in March 2013 at the 4A state tournament at the Dee Events Center in Ogden. Facing Bountiful, which had won 20 straight games, in the semifinals, Moore buried an unbelievable half-court shot at the buzzer that propelled Sky View to a 63-60 victory.

That night, Moore’s game-winner was featured on ESPN’s SportsCenter as the No. 2 top play of the day, and the shot will live on forever on YouTube.

“Sometimes I still watch it and think, 'That was really lucky.' But I’ll still take it,” says Moore, who went on to lead the Bobcats to the state title the next night with a win over valley rival Mountain Crest. “It’s every kid’s dream to be on SportsCenter for a play, so it was really cool to be able to experience that.

“Hitting a buzzer-beater like that changes a lot of kids’ lives, and people are still talking about it. It’s just cool to be a part of that, you know?”