For Craig Smith, Saturday night’s contest against BYU will truly be a home game, in that Utah State’s head coach will literally be at his house when the Aggies (1-2) tip-off against the Cougars (4-1) in their first game of the 2020-21 season at the Spectrum.
Smith announced Wednesday afternoon that he had tested positive for COVID-19. And during a virtual press conference Friday morning, he noted that he tested positive once again on Thursday, which means Smith will likely also miss Utah State’s recently announced home game against the College of Idaho on Dec. 8.
“I feel very fortunate — knock on wood,” Smith declared when asked about his health. “As of today I feel dynamite. I feel like I’m asymptomatic. I feel great, I have high energy and feel really good.”
In his absence, Smith said that assistant coach Eric Peterson will serve in his place. Peterson, as well as fellow assistant Austin Hansen, have both coached under Smith the past seven years, four of them at South Dakota and the last three at USU.
Smith said the Aggies are in “great hands” and that “things shouldn’t change just because I’m not there.”
“We have a great coaching staff, and we have great continuity as a coaching staff. This is Eric and Austin and I’s seventh year together, and that’s something that gets overlooked by a lot of people,” Smith noted. “… They understand what we do, how we do it and the way we go about things. They’ll do a fantastic job.”
Smith said he’s never missed a game during his 10 years as a head coach and is planning to watch Saturday’s game alone in the basement of his home, where he is currently quarantining and had actually been staying in recent weeks in an effort to avoid COVID-19.
While the Aggies have had their share of run-ins with the coronavirus during the offseason and early in the fall practice period, Smith said no one else on the team or coaching staff has tested positive of late. In addition, no one in Smith’s immediate family has come down the virus.
“We have a great coaching staff, and we have great continuity as a coaching staff. This is Eric (Peterson) and Austin (Hansen) and I’s seventh year together, and that’s something that gets overlooked by a lot of people.” — USU head coach Craig Smith
“When I tested positive it was a bit of a shocker,” Smith proclaimed. “I’ve been in self-quarantine essentially for a month now. Obviously I have four kids and a wife, and there’s a lot going on. But I haven’t eaten out at a restaurant, haven’t been to a public place, haven’t even went through a drive-thru.
“I wear a mask, wash my hands religiously and I’ve been away from my family, essentially living in our basement. So I was very surprised.”
The Aggies opened the season last week at the Bad Boy Mowers Classic in South Dakota, losing to VCU and South Dakota State before rallying to beat Northern Iowa in their final game. Thus far, junior center Neemias Queta (14.7 ppg, 9.3 rpg) leads the team in scoring and rebounding, while junior guard Marco Anthony (12.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg), junior forward Justin Bean (11.0 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and freshman guard Rollie Worster (12.0 ppg) are also averaging double figures in scoring early on.
But of primary concern for Smith going into Saturday’s game against the Cougars is that the Aggies have been surrendering just under 80 points per game, while allowing their opponents to shoot more than 44% from 3-point range.
Lamenting that “it seems like everybody shoots it well against us right now,” Smith added that BYU is “an excellent 3-point shooting team.” Led by senior guard Alex Barcello, who has knocked down 13 of 20 3-point shots this season, the Cougars are shooting 38% from the beyond the arc and 47.1% overall.
But the paint should also be an interesting place on Saturday, with the 7-foot Queta going up against 7-foot-3 center Matt Haarms, a transfer from Purdue who has only seen action in two games for the Cougars due to a foot injury.
“It’s going to be a great battle. … (Haarms) is a legitimate 7-3, runs well and is very skilled and can do a lot of different things,” Smith said. “And he certainly provides rim protection for them with his length and mobility. But obviously Queta has played very well for us, and he definitely looks different than he has the first two years. He has to be a force for us on both ends of the floor.”
Utah State has won 26 straight home openers, but then the Aggies don’t usually open up action at the Spectrum against an opponent of BYU’s caliber. The Cougars, conversely, have won the last eight meetings and nine of the last 10 games against the Aggies.
Last year’s game was a tight affair that Brigham Young eventually pulled out by a 68-64 margin at Vivint Smart Home Arena. But with BYU forward Yoeli Childs and USU guard Sam Merrill now competing at training camps with the Washington Wizards and the Milwaukee Bucks, respectively, Saturday’s game was already certain to have a different feel to it, even before Smith was sidelined by COVID-19 and attendance at the Spectrum was limited to 1,628 fans.
“Two very different teams than what we saw last year,” Smith said. “They’ve got a lot of new guys, in particular grad transfers and junior college transfers. And we’ve got a lot of new guys that are playing.
“So, it will definitely have a different feel than it’s had the last two years, but I know our guys are excited to compete. We’re excited for our home opener. It’s always great to play at home in the Spectrum.”
The Aggies announced on Friday that they have filled the final two holes in their 2020-21 schedule. In addition to facing the Coyotes, who they beat 103-66 in an exhibition game last year, Utah State will travel to Weber State for an afternoon game on Dec. 12. The Aggies will then host Dixie State on Dec. 15 before opening Mountain West play with a two-game set against San Jose State on Dec. 21 and 23 at the Spectrum.