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Why USU's Sam Merrill felt the need to hone his game for one more year

LOGAN — It was finals week at Utah State University. And like thousands of college students around the country, Sam Merrill was feeling a bit worn out.

But unlike the majority of those students, the Aggies’ star guard wasn't feeling beat up because he was studying until nearly 3 a.m. Rather, he was attending a late-night showing of the Marvel epic “Avengers: Endgame” that went well past its three-hour runtime thanks to a mechanical issue at the theater.

“I don’t think it would be considered a spoiler if I told you there was a fight going on about two hours in, when all of a sudden the screen went black and it took about 15 minutes to fix,” Merrill said.

“But it was very good,” he said of the blockbuster film. “I really liked it.”

Conversely, “Aggies: Endgame” was something Merrill didn’t care for at all.

Five weeks after Utah State’s magical, out-of-nowhere 28-win season came to an end with a 78-61 loss to Washington in USU’s first NCAA Tournament game in eight years, Merrill is still finding it difficult to digest how things came crashing down at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.

“It was obviously a great year and a lot great things happened,” Merrill said. “But personally, I’m still struggling to get over that tournament game.”

The 2019 Mountain West Player of the Year, as well as the MVP of the Mountain West Tournament, Merrill went into the game against the Huskies averaging 21.2 points per game. In addition, first-year head coach Craig Smith had guided the Aggies to victories in 17 of their previous 18 games, including 10 in a row heading into the Big Dance.

But the long and athletic Huskies and their active 2-3 zone made things extremely difficult for Merrill and the Aggies from the get-go, and the Bountiful High product ended up missing all three of the shots he took in the first half as the Aggies fell behind by as many 12 points. Utah State managed to rally back to within a single point with about 10 minutes left, but a couple of key 3-pointers sparked a Washington rally that led an easy victory down the stretch.

Merrill, playing in his final game of an otherwise fabulous junior season, ended up going 2 for 9 from the field for 10 points while committing six turnovers.

“I just feel like Washington did a great job,” Merrill said. “I mean, I didn’t play great, but I don’t feel like I didn’t show up or wasn’t ready. They just made things tough for me, and that’s kind of been my motivation ever since.”

Merrill says he took a few days off after the loss, but then got right back to work “lifting and shooting.” He also made a very significant decision about his future.

While many players around the country, including teammate Neemias Queta, were declaring for the NBA draft, Merrill quietly decided to not even explore the possibility of going pro but would instead return to USU for his senior year.

“I had every intention of doing so,” Merrill said. “I sent in my evaluation form to the league, got it back and then talked to a pretty credible source — a guy pretty high up who really knows his stuff — and he kind of talked me out of it.”

Merrill doesn’t say who his “credible source” was, but just that the NBA insider felt it would be better if Merrill continued to work on his game over the summer, and then let scouts see a new-and-improved Sam Merrill when attending Aggie games during the 2019-20 season.

“I think I made some big steps last summer,” Merrill said, “but I also think I have a lot of areas to improve in.”

FILE: Utah State guard Sam Merrill celebrates after Brock Miller made a 3-pointer against Fresno State during an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Logan, Utah. Merrill had 22 points Saturday as the Aggies went on the road and beat W
Utah State guard Sam Merrill celebrates after Brock Miller made a 3-pointer against Fresno State during an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Logan, Utah.

Specifically, Merrill says he wants to continue to improve his ballhandling abilities, his body and his shooting. Merrill, who dropped 15 pounds last offseason, proclaims that he is “quicker than people think,” but admits that his leaping ability could be improved, as well as his shooting. Merrill shot about 38 percent from 3-point range last season after knocking down 45 and 46 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc during his freshman and sophomore years, respectively.

“I kind of went back to the player I was in high school last year where I was more about getting to the rim and playing inside the 3-point line,” Merrill said. “I didn’t get as many good looks as I did my first two years, for sure, but I also think my mindset was a little bit different this last year, and that might have affected me.

“I mean, 38 percent isn’t bad — it’s still pretty good — but not really up to my standards,” he added.

Merrill and the Aggies, who slipped into the AP top 25 in the final poll before the start of the NCAA Tournament, will obviously enter the 2019-20 season from a completely different position than last year. Slated to finish ninth in the Mountain West in the annual preseason media poll, Smith ended up guiding Utah State to a tie for first place with runaway preseason favorite Nevada.

Inasmuch as nearly that entire Wolf Pack team is gone now — along with head coach Eric Musselman, who left Reno to become the head coach at Arkansas — the Aggies have already shown up in a handful of preseason top-25 polls for the upcoming season. Of course, those expectations probably have to be considered unreasonable if Queta elects to keep his name in for the NBA draft after the May 29 deadline to withdraw.

The 6-foot-11 center from Portugal was honored as both the Mountain West Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year after averaging 11.8 points and 8.9 rebounds per game while racking up a school-record 84 blocks.

“I don’t think even he knows what’s going to happen,” Merrill said of Queta. “But it will be great either way. If he stays in, that will be great for the school. And if he comes back, that will be great for us as a team. Either way, we support him. And either way, as a team we’re going to have extremely high expectations for ourselves, as well.”