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'Sam's a warrior': Utah State's Merrill wins Mountain West POY, continues to elevate play for co-champion Aggies

LOGAN — A few minutes after the completion of practice at the Wayne Estes Center last Friday afternoon, Utah State guard Sam Merrill spent a few minutes with a couple of Aggie fans and their young children, autographing a basketball and chatting about USU’s surprising run to a share of the Mountain West title.

While still sporting a tight, gray T-shirt, Merrill had removed his arms from his mesh practice jersey, leaving it hanging from his neck and down his back in cape-like fashion.

Not that those Utah State fans — or anyone else from Aggie Nation, for that matter — needed another reason to look at the 2019 Mountain West Player of the Year like he was a superhero.

“Sam’s a warrior,” Utah State head coach Craig Smith proclaims. “Sam will do anything and everything that he needs to do for the Aggies to win games.

“When I got here, people told me, ‘All he cares about is winning. He just wants to win.’ And it shows because he always wants to guard the other team’s best player, while still getting 20 points a game. Not a lot of guys want to do that.”

As the Aggies (25-6, 15-3) prepare to open play at the Mountain West Men’s Basketball Championship Thursday night at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, “Captain Merrill” finally has a chance to rest up a little bit after spearheading USU’s remarkable run from a 1-2 start in conference play to first place in the Mountain West standings.

During the Aggies’ final four games of the regular season, Merrill put up 32 points in USU’s overtime win at Boise State, 19 points in the program’s first-ever victory over San Diego State and 29 points in the win over No. 12 Nevada that vaulted the Aggies into first place.

Then, with a share of the Mountain West title on the line at Colorado State on March 5, Merrill powered his way to a career-high 38 points in the Aggies’ epic, 100-96 overtime victory over the Rams.

The most stunning statistic for Merrill during that stretch, however, is that the former Bountiful High standout logged 170 out of a possible 170 minutes during those four games.

“I know it’s tough to play an entire game, because I played 28, and I’m completely exhausted,” USU junior guard Diogo Brito said of Merrill following the Aggies’ upset of Nevada. “I can barely imagine what it would take to play those 40 minutes at the intensity that we play. But Sam really needs to be on the floor if we want to win, and fortunately he was able to hold his own for 40 minutes.”

Merrill shrugs off his “Iron Man” streak, pointing out that there are media timeouts and breaks in action for fouls, dead balls, etc. Plus, he doesn’t always guard the best perimeter player from the other team; sometimes a teammate will pick up the high scorer from the other squad for a possession or two.

“Sam is a two-way player, and he takes great pride in that,” Smith says. “He wants to guard the other team’s best player, and he does it very, very well. You kind of forget that he’s almost 6-5, and he’s got very good length and very good instincts.

“And he’s super smart, the dude remembers everything in the scouting report.”

Although Merrill was solid as a freshman (9.4 ppg) and very good as a sophomore (16.3 ppg), he’s elevated his play this season in Smith’s first year at the USU helm. The former South Dakota coach was brought in to replace Tim Duryea, who was fired last March after three seasons, and while Merrill’s backcourt mate, Koby McEwen, elected to transfer out of the program, Merrill says he decided “pretty early” to remain an Aggie.

“When Coach Duryea got fired, you’ve got your third parties reaching out and saying, ‘Hey you can go play wherever you want,’” Merrill recalls. “But I wanted to see who the coach was going to be and see if it was someone that I liked. And within our first couple of meetings, I don’t know what it was, but I could tell he was going to be a pretty good coach. I wasn’t sure he’d be this good and we’d be this good, but I knew he was the right guy for sure.”

Utah State guard Sam Merrill walks back up the court at the Smith Spectrum following one of the final plays of the Aggies' upset of No. 12 Nevada on Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Logan.
Utah State guard Sam Merrill walks back up the court at the Smith Spectrum following one of the final plays of the Aggies' upset of No. 12 Nevada on Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Logan.
Jeff Hunter

Of course, leaving Utah State wouldn’t have been easy for someone raised on the glory days of Aggie basketball, especially considering that his wife is also a USU athlete. Merrill married soccer player Kanyan Ward last May, about a year and a half after first spotting the former Mountain Crest midfielder during USU’s ironically named Athletic Connections class when they were both freshmen.

“I didn’t ever talk to her in class; I just noticed her,” admits Merrill, whose older sister, Molli Sorenson, is an assistant coach on the USU soccer team. “But it turns out that one of my best friends up here knew her in high school, and so I asked him about her. And so he texted her and set us up.”

But as Merrill’s nuptials neared in May, it was the groom who started dieting like a bride anxious to fit into her wedding dress.

Due to “stress eating” during his sophomore season, Merrill says he put on some additional weight thanks to indulging in “fast food crap.” Determined to drop 15 pounds before the start of his junior year, he says he cut down on carbs and sweets and had almost reached his goal by the time he got married.

“It wasn’t easy, but it did happen pretty quick,” Merrill says. “I just realized that I had to make a change for my health on the court, and get into better shape, like I used to be."

“I’ve still got to chisel out a little bit this summer. It’s a work in progress.”

Although Merrill actually averaged more minutes last season (35.4 mpg in 2017-18 to 35.2 mpg this year), he’s almost not come off the floor down the stretch in 2018-19 for an Aggie team that has won 14 of its last 15 games heading into the conference tournament.

First in the Mountain West in scoring in conference games (22 ppg) and second in all games (21 ppg), Merrill has continued to carry the offensive load for Utah State this year, even though his 3-point field goal percentage has slipped to a career-low .380. The son of John and Jenny Merrill of Bountiful has made up for that falloff in perimeter production by driving to the basket more, looking to score or at least get to the free-throw line where he leads the MW in shooting with a .904 percentage.

“I am focusing more on getting to the rim. Coach is constantly preaching: ‘Like the three; love the rim,’” Merrill says. “He wants us to always put pressure on the rim and be in attack mode.”

“Especially in tight games or bigger, more important games, it’s important to establish the rim because if you’re putting that much pressure on the rim, it opens things up much more.”

Although most of the nation’s “bracketologists” suggest the Aggies are likely to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament regardless of how things go this week in Las Vegas, Merrill certainly isn’t taking it for granted that the Aggies are a shoo-in to make their first Big Dance since 2011.

The morning after USU’s monster victory over Nevada, Merrill texted all of his teammates to remind them that they still needed to win at Colorado State a couple of days later to win at least a share of conference title. And he’s bringing a similar mindset as the Aggies head into the Mountain West tournament as the No. 2 seed.

“It feels really good to win a share of the league. That was one of our goals, and we put in a lot of work,” Merrill says. “But for me, I want to play in the NCAA Tournament. So, we haven’t settled with that. We want to hopefully win the tournament to make things easy on Selection Sunday."

“I know from watching college basketball my whole life that as a mid-major, a lot of times you have to do something extra to earn a selection from the committee. So, even if everyone is saying we’re in, we want to win a conference tournament and cut down some nets. And like I said, that will make Sunday much easier.”