After winning last year’s Mountain West tournament title only to be denied a second straight trip to the NCAA tournament due to the state of the pandemic, the last thing the Utah State Aggies wanted to still be dealing with come late November was COVID-19.

But here they are, about to embark on the 2020-21 season at a tournament that was originally slated to take place in the Bahamas, but ended up being moved to South Dakota and rechristened the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic because of the pandemic. And then due to soaring coronavirus cases South Dakota the past couple of months, teams started dropping out, creating an opening for the Aggies to move into the tourney even as other teams decided not to attend.

Such is the nature of college basketball right now that seemingly everything is a “moving target,” according to USU coach Craig Smith.

A season like this would be a challenge for even the most veteran basketball teams, and unfortunately for the Aggies, they are inaugurating nine new players — including seven true freshmen — onto a roster that is without Sam Merrill for the first time in four years. The second-leading scorer in school history, Merrill is now a member of the Milwaukee Bucks, after being picked with the final selection of the 2020 NBA draft.

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On the plus side, the lack of movement in the coaching ranks during the pandemic might just have helped the Aggie hold onto Smith, who has gone 54-15 during his two years in Logan, with a regular-season Mountain West title and back-to-back postseason championships on his rapidly improving resume.

In addition, Utah State has also been able to keep Neemias Queta around, a 7-foot force at center, who is back as a junior after toying with the idea of going pro following a standout freshman season in 2018-10. And junior forward Justin Bean, who stepped up his play while Queta was dealing with injuries last season, has emerged as a double-double machine for the Aggies, giving USU arguably the best 1-2 punch in the post in the Mountain West.

The Aggies big men, coupled with Smith’s ability to get the best out of the majority of his players, certainly give Utah State a shot to compete in the midst of a very uncertain college basketball landscape this season.

Key newcomers

Marco Anthony is easily the new Aggie that Utah State fans are most excited about. And why not? The 6-5 junior guard transferred from Virginia after winning a national championship with the Cavaliers in 2019. And thanks to his strength and athleticism, Anthony is likely to see time at all three perimeter spots this season. And should the Aggies go small, he’s even capable of jumping in at power forward.

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The hope is that Anthony can provide some good perimeter shooting, steady ballhandling and leadership as the Aggies try to replace the substantial contributions of an all-time great in the departed Merrill.  

Former Lone Peak star Steve Ashworth, fresh off a church mission to Indianapolis — the site of this year’s NCAA tournament — could also be a factor this season at point guard as an older freshman. And when it comes to scoring, it’s hard not to be high on the potential of Rollie Worster out of Hellgate High in Missoula, Montana. Worster was the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year the past season after averaging 22.2 points per game as a junior, and 20.7 points as a senior.

Key departures

The Aggies obviously lost a lot of scoring and shooting in Merrill, who averaged 19.7 points per game and knocked down 89 of 217 3-point attempts. But USU will also miss the grit, determination and leadership of the first Aggie to be selected in the NBA draft in 34 years.

Merrill was also a solid ballhandler, and played quite a bit of point guard down the stretch last season. Couple his loss with the graduation of Diogo Brito, who played a lot at point guard as USU’s sixth man the past few seasons, and starting point guard Abel Porter’s relocation to Ohio State (and subsequent retirement due to a heart ailment), and it leaves the Aggies with practically no experienced ballhandlers in the backcourt.

And while neither Porter or Brito shot very well from the perimeter last season, they both came through in the clutch on notable occasions the past two years. Merrill was absolutely the go-to guy from outside as a junior and senior, but he was also willing to give up the basketball when necessary. Replacing that kind of leadership and finding players comfortable with knocking down shots in big moments will likely be a challenge early in the season.   

Potential X-factor

This is the year that the old refrain of staying healthy goes far beyond dealing with torn ACLs and sprained ankles. Keeping your program as COVID-free as possible is the highest priority, and the Aggies already had to deal with their share of the virus during the summer and preseason practice period.

On the court, the Aggies would love to see more consistent perimeter shooting from junior Brock Miller, who has shown flashes of his abilities, but has struggled to maintain a good percentage as seasons have progressed. And Smith is very excited about the progression of sophomore Sean Bairstow, a 6-8 guard from Australia, who was quite solid last season while coming off the bench to play just under 12 minutes a game.

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But the potential for Queta to be even better than his spectacular rookie season, when he was Mountain West Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year, is absolutely there. The Portugal native was hampered almost all of last season with a knee injury he suffered at an international tournament, and yet he still ended up averaging 13.0 points and 7.8 rebounds in 22 games.

And a shorter season this year might just benefit the athletic 7-footer, who has added a lot of muscle during the offseason and is moving like his old, shot-blocking self again.

Schedule challenges

As of two days before the Aggies’ first game, USU’s official no-conference schedule is comprised of three games at the Bad Boy Mower Crossover Classic … and that’s it. Utah State is slated to open up against VCU on Wednesday, but the eight-team tourney in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has had to go under constant revision as teams have dropped out, including Texas A&M being replaced by Northern Iowa and Western Kentucky stepping in for No. 11 Creighton.

While Utah State has yet to announce it, BYU’s schedule has the Cougars traveling to Logan on Dec. 5, but it seems highly unlikely that fans will be allowed at a contest that is always a sellout at the Spectrum. It also seems likely that the Aggies will play at Weber State sometime in December, but neither school has announced anything thus far. And the status of any other nonconference contests appear to be very much up in the air, at this point.

The newly revised Mountain West schedule has teams hosting another program for two games over a three-day period, with the Aggies opening up against San Jose State on Dec. 21 and 23. Utah State could benefit from playing at home against preseason favorite San Diego State (Jan. 14 and 16), as well as contenders Colorado State (Jan. 20 and 22) and Nevada (Feb. 25 and 27). However, the Aggies travel to preseason runner-up Boise State (Feb. 18 and 20) and UNLV (Jan. 25 and 27), which was slotted to finish fourth, a spot behind Utah State.

Prediction

The Aggies were picked to finish ninth in Smith’s first season at USU, but then ended up tying for first with heavily favored Nevada. Last year, Utah State was the runaway preseason favorite, but the Aggies were slowed by injuries and finished in a three-way tie for third.

Considering what San Diego State did last year — going 30-2 and ending the season No. 6 in the country — and Boise State’s talent level and continual improvement over the past few years, picking Utah State to finish third seems like a very respectable prediction. Arguably even a little high, considering the loss of Merrill, two of his most experienced backcourt mates and, very likely, one of the best homecourt advantages in the conference with the number of fans in the stands certain to be limited at the Spectrum.

But then, Utah State ended up winning the Mountain West postseason tournament in both 2019 and ’20, so there’s every reason to believe that Smith and his staff will be a very tough opponent later in the year, even if the Aggies’ youth and inexperience in the backcourt lead to some bumps in the road early on.