LOGAN — After seeing its magical postseason run come to a brutally abrupt end last March, the last thing the Utah State men’s basketball team still wanted to be dealing with in late October was the coronavirus.
And yet, here we are.
It’s the week of Halloween, and the Aggies still aren’t certain when and where they are going to play their season opening contest. In the words of USU head coach Craig Smith, everything is still a “moving target” more than seven months after the Aggies won the Mountain West Tournament title only to be denied a trip to the NCAA tourney a few days later by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While Utah State’s Mountain West schedule is set, beginning with a game at Air Force on Dec. 29, like most Division I programs around the country its nonconference schedule has yet to be finalized. Add the fact that the Aggies no longer have the school’s second-leading scorer of all-time, Sam Merrill, on their roster, but do have nine newcomers on the team, and it’s easy to see that there is a lot left to be decided by the Aggies — on and off the court.
Here are five storylines to watch for as the Aggies prepare for the 2020-21 season.
What are the Aggies’ going to miss most? Sam Merrill’s offensive production? Or his leadership?
Over the past couple of seasons, there was no doubt who the Aggies wanted to have the ball at the end of a close game. Even before he drilled the game-winner in his final collegiate game — a stunning upset of No. 5 San Diego State in the championship game of the Mountain West Tournament — Merrill was the designated playmaker in crunch time.
And it wasn’t just because he was USU’s second-leading scorer all time. Merrill played hard, played hurt and was supremely focused on whatever it took to win, as can be seen in the moments immediately after he buried that historic 3-point dagger against the Aztecs. While his teammates were going celebrating, he was staring down the officials and asking why there was no foul called on the shot. He knew the Aztecs still had enough time left on the clock to tie the score, so a four-point play would have been huge.
So, while USU will definitely miss the 19.7 points per game Merrill put up last season, they might miss his leadership and grit just as much. Not to mention, Merrill’s backcourt partners, Abel Porter and Diego Brito, are also gone, leaving USU with very little notable experience on the perimeter.
Junior forward Justin Bean, who emerged as a double-double force last season, seems likely to take on more of a leadership role due to his endless energy and positive attitude, while senior forward Alphonso Anderson and junior center Neemias Queta will probably be more vocal this season, as well. But on the perimeter, only junior guard Brock Miller and sophomore guard Sean Bairstow boast much Division I experience with the Aggies, which creates an opportunity for junior guard Marco Anthony to take on a big role.
Although he redshirted last season after transferring from Virginia, according to Smith, Anthony has tried to take over a leadership role. And it probably helps that when it comes to credentials, Anthony can boast of winning a national championship with the Cavaliers in 2019.
How fast can Smith and his staff get the new guys up to speed under unusual conditions?
This is probably not the best year for the Aggies to have seven true freshmen, a redshirt freshman and a junior transfer on the roster. Especially when three of those true freshmen (Max Shugla, Szymon Zapala and Zahar Vedischev) were stuck in Europe for almost the entire summer, leaving them even further behind on learning USU’s system and terminology, as well as adjusting to life in the United States.
And while teams still have 30 practices over a six-week span to prepare for the 2020-21 season thanks to the NCAA cutting schedules back by four games, there are also no exhibition games this year, something that would have been extremely beneficial to a program in Utah State’s situation.
If one of the freshmen breaks through and is able to grab some playing time early on, it seems most likely to be Steven Ashworth. A bit older than most true freshmen after serving a church mission to Indianapolis, Ashworth also grew up in Utah, helping lead Lone Peak to the state 6A title in 2018 with 16.4 points and 7.4 assists per game.
What will Utah State’s 3-point shooting look like in 2020-21?
As a senior last year, guard Merrill led the Mountain West in field goal percentage (.461), second in 3-point field goal percentage (.410) and third in 3-point field goals made (89). But as a team, the Aggies finished seventh in the conference in 3-point field goal percentage (.333) after shooting at a .355 clip in 2018-19.
Brock Miller’s percentage fell from shooting .364 with 70 3-pointers as a redshirt freshman to .305 and 61 3-point field goals last season, while Brito (38 3-pointers) and Porter (22 3-pointers) are gone now. That leaves senior forward Anderson as the leading perimeter shooter from last season with 21 3-pointers.
Getting better shooting from beyond the arc without Merrill sounds like an impossibility, but the Aggies really need to improve their 3-point percentage behind the sophomore guard Bairstow and newcomers like Anthony, Liam McChesney and Ashworth.
How good can a full healthy Neemias Queta be as a junior?
Following a breakout season as a freshman in 2018-19, not many people would have put money down on the 7-foot defensive force still being on USU’s roster come October 2020. But after initially declaring for the NBA draft in 2018, Queta pulled his name out of consideration, only to suffer a severe injury to his left knee a couple of months later at an international tournament in his home country of Portugal.
That setback limited Queta to 22 games and 38 blocks in 2019-20 — down from 35 games and a school-record 84 blocks the previous season — but the 2019 Mountain West Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year was starting to move more like his old self when USU’s season came to abrupt conclusion in mid-March.
While Queta’s scoring (13.0 ppg) and rebounding (7.8 rpg) averages last season were similar to his freshman season, uncertainty about his injury and the effects of the pandemic on the NBA draft helped the Aggies’ retain the center’s physical gifts for at least one more season. And unlike some of his international teammates, Queta elected to stay in Logan once last season ended, allowing him to continue to work out under the watchful eyes of USU’s training staff as much as possible, and by all accounts, has added some muscle to his 245-pound body while also strengthening his left knee.
Add that to USU’s need to score more points down low in the post-Merrill era, and it’s not hard to see a big year from the Aggies’ big man.
Is ‘Spectrum Magic’ still going to be a thing in 2020-21?
After taking a bit of a hit during Stew Morrill’s final couple of seasons and Tim Duryea’s three-year tenure, the once epic home-court advantage enjoyed by the Aggies at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum has certainly been on the rise since Smith’s arrival.
During Smith’s first season in Logan, Utah State went 14-1 on its home court, the lone setback coming via a last-second shot by Fresno State in a one-point loss. And in 2019-20, the Aggies finished 15-1 at the Spectrum with their only defeat coming at the hands of a San Diego State team that went onto win 30 games and finish sixth in the final AP Top 5 poll.
But due to the coronavirus, fans will likely be greatly limited in the Spectrum this season, if any are allowed in at all, so it’s not hard to see the Aggies lose the majority of that home-court advantage without the benefit of 8,000-10,000 boisterous fans in the stands. That would leave only the altitude and the difficulty of traveling to Logan in USU’s corner.