By Jeff Hunter
For the Deseret News
LOGAN — Two and a half years later, Tim Duryea laughs even harder at the absurdity of the thought.
Set to begin his third season as Utah State's head basketball coach Friday night against Weber State, Duryea had just been announced as Stew Morrill's replacement in March 2015 when he received a call from John Merrill, the father of Aggie recruit Sam Merrill.
Prior to leaving on an LDS mission to Nicaragua, the former Bountiful High School star had committed to play for Utah State after returning home in June 2016. But after Morrill's retirement at the end of 2014-15 season, it took a couple of weeks for USU to name Duryea, his longtime assistant, as his successor.
Soon afterward came the conversation with John Merrill "that makes me chuckle now."
"John is a great guy and that is a great family," Duryea declared. "And he asked me, 'Are you sure you want Sam?'
"'Yeah,'" Duryea continues with a laugh, "'Pretty sure. Pretty sure we like him.' We knew he was going to be a great player."
Now a 6-foot- 5 sophomore guard, Sam Merrill is half of what many college basketball aficionados consider to be the best backcourt tandem in the Mountain West heading into the 2017-18 season.
But while fellow sophomore guard Koby McEwen ended up being named MW Freshman of the Year after averaging 14.9 points per game last season, McEwen's emergence was hardly unexpected after being rated as the first Top 100 recruit in Utah State history.
Merrill, meanwhile, came in a little bit under the radar thanks to his two-year mission. The former 4A MVP came off the bench early in the season, but earned a starting role by the time conference play got underway and started USU's final 18 games of the season.
Merrill ended up averaging 9.4 points per game while shooting 45 percent from both the floor and 3-point range. But what really made Merrill standout was his assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.27, the best in the Mountain West, 19th in the nation and the fourth-best ever ratio in USU history.
Credit Duryea — and Morrill — for seeing his potential.
"We always thought that Sam was just a really steady guy, and the comparison that we always used was (former Aggie guard) Tyler Newbold," Duryea says. "Watching Sam play, you could just tell that if the ball needed to be passed into the post all night long because that was what was best for the team, then he was going to do that. And if the other team had a guy that needed to be shut down defensively, then Sam was going to do that.
"Like Tyler, you could see that winning was really the only agenda that Sam had."
Fortunately for the Aggies, Merrill knows all about Tyler Newbold, who played at USU from 2007-11 on some of the best Aggie teams of all-time. Sam's parents, John and Jenny, both attended Utah State, his older sister, Molli, was a standout goalie (and current assistant coach) on the Aggie soccer team, and his grandfather, Reed Merrill, is a longtime season-ticket holder who lives in River Heights.
"I've been coming here to games my whole life," Sam explains. "Jaycee (Carroll) was my idol when I was a kid, and I was here the night he broke (USU's all-time) scoring record. I also liked Jared Quayle, because I thought my game was similar to his, and Tyler Newbold.
"I knew who all those guys were, and I knew their stats and everything."
But while Newbold, who owns the two best assist-to-turnover ratios for a season in USU history, was a rugged defender known for his steady and efficient ball control, he was not the offensive threat that Merrill figures to be. Merrill averaged 18.3 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists as a junior for a Bountiful team that lost in the semifinals of the state tournament in 2012-13, then put up 15.8 points, 7.4 assists and 4.6 rebounds while leading the Braves to the state title in 2013-14.
"Tyler was a great shooter, a really good defender and had that great assist-to-turnover ratio, but I do want someone that can even do more offensively," Merrill says. "I still have a ways to go, but I think I'm getting there. But if I can get even close to being the kind of player that he was, then I'll be happy with my career."
Although he got off to seemingly a great start on his career last season, Merrill admits he was a "little overweight" coming off of his mission, and Duryea says his steady guard got worn down as the season progressed. Merrill also was not happy at all with the overall outcome that resulted in a 14-17 record – the Aggies' first losing mark since 1992-93.
"I grew up an Aggie fan, and it was 20 wins every year, at least, and we were going to the tournament," Merrill says. "That's what I want to get back to. I want to get this place rocking again, get back to 20 wins and postseason berths. To me, the personal stuff doesn't really matter."
Although he admits to feeling "a lot of responsibility" heading into this season — the Aggies are going to be small and rely on him and McEwen for a lot of scoring — pressure is not something that you see on Merrill's face. If there's usually any emotion showing, it's a smile, and he credits his steady demeanor to the way he was raised by his parents, and experiences that endured prior to coming to Utah State.
In addition to basketball, Merrill also played baseball, golf and football for the Braves, excelling as a wide receiver and safety.
"I've had a lot of good coaches, and my football coach in high school, Larry Wall, was about as good as you can get," Merrill notes. "He was constantly teaching us life lessons, as well as football lessons. When things went wrong, his idea was to stay calm, persevere and get through it."
Merrill also learned a tough basketball lesson in 2013 when he and the Braves were denied a shot at the state championship when his future Aggie teammate, Jalen Moore, buried a half-court shot at the buzzer to lift Sky View to a stunning, 63-60 upset in the semifinals. Although he scored 35 points, Merrill took the loss hard very following a missed shot late in regulation and a turnover in overtime that led to Moore's epic shot.
"For me, yeah, it sucked that Jalen hit that; it was unlucky," Merrill says. "But that motivated me through that offseason and through AAU ball. I kept thinking that I had two opportunities to win that game, and that pushed me and pushed our whole team to be better. And we only lost one game my senior year, so that made up for it."
Merrill's mission to Central America also came with its challenges, but is quick to add "obviously I don't regret it for a second."
"I felt like I was tough, like I was a tough player and a tough person in high school, but that toughened me up even more," Merrill says of his time in Nicaragua. "I feel like that experience had helped me so much on the court when things go wrong, or you're playing against someone bigger or faster. The things I learned on my mission, I'm able to apply them on the court."
Currently studying accounting at Utah State, Merrill certainly figures to put up some good numbers for the Aggies this season. And he, his father and Duryea clearly believe that he's in the right place.
"Sam comes from a Utah State family, and it really wouldn't have been right for him to go to any other school — it just wouldn't have," Duryea proclaims. "Like many other guys that we've had here during my 17 years, it's just a perfect fit for some guys. And this is a perfect fit for Sam Merrill."