During the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems that patience has been elevated to something even greater than a virtue, but Craig Smith isn’t exactly known for sitting around and waiting for things to happen.

Case in point: Back in late August, Utah State’s head men’s basketball coach decided it was time to climb Longs Peak, a 14,259-foot peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, with his oldest son, Landon. A former assistant coach at Colorado State, Smith had already summited one of Colorado’s most popular “fourteeners” (fourteeners are mountain peaks with an elevation of at least 14,000 feet) on four previous occasions, the latest being about 10 years ago.

When a small weather window presented itself, the Smiths promptly drove from Logan to Estes Park, Colorado, on a Friday night, and while Landon got a few hours of sleep at the hotel, Craig tossed and turned until declaring it was time to get up and go just after 1 a.m. At the trailhead by 2, the Smiths hustled up the Keyhole Route in less than six hours, hurried back down the mountain to complete the 14.8-mile-long trek and got back on the road.

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Less than eight hours later, the Smiths were back in Cache Valley. 

“I figured out that I was up for about 43 straight hours,” Smith said. “But it was really cool. It was a really great experience to do with my son.”

With that kind of energy and determination, it’s not hard to envision Smith champing at the bit to officially get the 2020-21 season underway, but due to the pandemic, the NCAA trimmed down the number of games a program can play this season while pushing back the first day a team can play an official game from early November to the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Nov. 25.

That means college basketball teams could start holding full-team practices on Oct. 14, with the ability to hold 30 practices over a 42-day stretch. But due to the direct impact of the coronavirus, the Aggies have been holding limited practice sessions with individual players.

 “We’ve had some,” Smith replied Tuesday morning when asked if the program has had some positive COVID-19 tests. “I’m not going to get into names or anything, but we’ve had some cases within our team, within our coaching staff. That’s just part of the deal. And our guys are accustomed to that and the protocols now.

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“We had a guy that had to miss two weeks because of his roommate testing positive,” Smith continued. “Now, his roommate is not on the team, but with direct contact, you’ve got to miss time that way as well. There’s protocols that our administration have set forward, and they’ve done a great job with their leadership, putting safety first and foremost, but at the same time, finding avenues for all student-athletes to get back practicing and working out in a safe and timely manner.”

Smith said the plan was to go “full steam ahead” with team practices Tuesday afternoon, “and I anticipate that being the case of the rest of the way.”

The Aggies have all 16 players on their roster on campus now. Due to travel restrictions, senior center Kuba Karwowski was stuck in his native Poland the entire summer, while three newcomers, guard Max Shulga (Ukraine), center Szymon Zapala (Poland) and guard Zahar Vedischev (Russia), also cut it close, arriving in Logan just before the start of school and then having to quarantine for 14 days.

All in all, Utah State has seven brand-new players on the roster, while junior guard Marco Anthony sat out last season after transferring from Virginia and freshman forward Liam McChesney redshirted.

So, there’s obviously no place Smith would rather be than on the practice floor right now.

“It’s just been such an uneven year for a multitude of reasons, one of them is just the lack of summer,” Smith noted. “Normally you get about eight weeks in the summertime. This year we got just over three, and even then our whole team wasn’t here and we didn’t know if four of our guys would ever get here, so when you combine that with some injuries, it was hard to be able to even have full team practices at that time.”

“Normally you get about eight weeks in the summertime, this year we got just over three. And even then our whole team wasn’t here, and we didn’t know if four of our guys would ever get here. So, when you combine that with some injuries, it was hard to be able to even have full team practices at that time.” — Utah State coach Craig Smith

The Aggies went 26-8 last year and won the Mountain West Conference Tournament for the second straight season behind the heroics of senior guard Sam Merrill, USU’s second-leading scorer of all time. But within days of winning the tourney in Las Vegas, Utah State was denied a trip to the NCAA tournament by the onset of the pandemic, and more than seven months later, the Aggies’ upcoming season is also uncertain.

While USU is slated to open an 18-game Mountain West schedule at Air Force on Dec. 29, the Aggies’ nonconference schedule — like many programs around the country — is still in the process of being revamped and finalized. According to Smith, USU will likely play nine nonconference games, but the Aggies won’t be able to set the remainder of their schedule until the dates are set for a multiteam event they are planning to attend.

 “I thought we had a great nonconference schedule before, and I still think we will,” Smith said. “But we got our MTE finalized, so I think we’re in a pretty good spot. Hopefully we’ll know those dates soon, and then we can set the date for that last game, which will be dictated by the dates of our MTE.”