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‘We’ll definitely be different’: USU basketball coach Craig Smith has holes to fill for 2020-21 season

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Utah State head coach Craig Smith, right, talks to his players on the bench during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against North Carolina A&T on Friday, Nov. 15, 2019, in Logan, Utah.

Eli Lucero, AP

LOGAN — Utah State basketball coach Craig Smith learned the hard way not to take anything for granted in 2020. But then securing an “automatic” bid to an NCAA Tournament that was never held will do that.

So, the third-year coach was understandably cautious with his words last week as Monday was the first day the NCAA mandated that summer activities, including weight-training, conditioning and skill instruction, could begin for Division I basketball players.

“Our guys feel fortunate that they’ve been able to do voluntary workouts,” Smith said. “And then starting July 20, we can work out as a team.

“As of today, anyway,” Smith added with a chuckle.

“There’s certainly a lot of unknowns, but we’re also really excited about this group. We have some very, very talented guys. But then, talent doesn’t always win you games.” — Utah State coach Craig Smith

Even without the considerable impact of the coronavirus pandemic on collegiate athletics, the Aggies would be dealing with a lot of question marks, most notably, how to replace the leadership and production of Sam Merrill, who graduated with 2,197 career points and 477 assists. He was also the clutch leader who buried the game-winning 3-pointer against No. 5 San Diego State that vaulted the Aggies to a second straight Mountain West tourney title last March.

“Sam … listen, the guy’s the second all-time leading scorer and the second all-time leader in assists in the history — and that’s a big word — in the history of Utah State basketball, and he also did it while playing four years in the Mountain West Conference,” Smith noted. “That’s a difficult thing to do. Not many coaches, or quite frankly even players, get to coach or play with someone who has those kind of attributes or accolades.

“Sam also showed up every day, ready to practice, and every game guarding the other team’s best perimeter player. So, it’s not just offensive production that you lose, it’s the leadership, the way he guards, the mentality.”

The Aggies not only lost Merrill, who is now preparing for the NBA draft on Oct. 16, but also senior sixth man Diogo Brito and junior point guard Abel Porter, who will play his final collegiate season this year at Ohio State. That’s an incredible amount of backcourt experience and ballhandling lost from a team that went 26-8 last season.

“We’ve lost a ton of game experience and a lot of chemistry, and those guys played together for four years, including Abel with the redshirt,” Smith noted. “So, there’s a natural synergy and camaraderie that those three guys really had. And it showed when you watched them play.”

Adding to that lack of experience is the fact Smith and his staff entered Monday’s activities without four international players, three of whom are newcomers to the program.

Due to travel restrictions and complications surrounding the pandemic, 7-foot-2 senior center Kuba Karwowksi (2.7 points, 3.2 rebounds in 15 games in 2019-20) is still stuck in Poland, as is 6-11 freshman center Szymon Zapala. In addition, freshmen guards Max Shulga and Zahar Vedischev are still in their home nations of Ukraine and Russia, respectively.

“We really don’t know the status of those four guys,” Smith said. “They’re doing their due diligence and have all of their paperwork in. Now we just have to wait and see what happens, and if they can get here. Right now, things are trending the right way for that to happen, so we’re crossing our fingers and doing all we can do as a coaching staff and a university. And certainly they are on their end, as well, because they’re fired up to be a part of Utah State.”

Fortunately for the Aggies, the other three international players on the roster are in Cache Valley and ready to go, including junior center Neemias Queta (13.0 ppg, 10.5 rpg in 2019-20), who elected to stay in the United States rather than return to his native Portugal after the NCAA Tournament was canceled in mid-March.

Australian guard Sean Bairstow (2.8 ppg in 2019-20) and Canadian forward Liam McChesney (redshirted in 2019-20) are also in Logan, along with junior guard Marco Anthony. A member of the 2019 national championship team, Anthony sat out last season after transferring from Virginia, where he averaged 1.2 points and 5.4 minutes per game as a sophomore.


Utah State’s Neemias Queta shoots as Wyoming’s Hunter Maldonado (24) defends during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the Mountain West Conference men’s tournament Friday, March 6, 2020, in Las Vegas.

Isaac Brekken, AP

Joining Queta and Karwowski as returning frontcourt players are junior forward Justin Bean, who had a breakout year in 2019-20, averaging 11.9 points and 10.5 rebound per game, senior forward Alphonso Anderson (8.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and sophomore center Trevin Dorius (2.7 ppg, 2.6 rpg). McChesney, Zapala and 6-9 freshman forward Matthew Wickizer, the son of former Aggie center Nathan Wickizer, are also in the running to get minutes this season following the departure of Roche Grootfaam and Klay Stall from last year’s team.

With the loss of Merrill, Brito and Porter, junior guard Brock Miller (8.4 ppg, 61 3-pointers) is USU’s top returning perimeter player, but the Brighton High product saw his 3-point field-goal percentage fall from .354 as a redshirt freshman in 2018-19 to just .305 last season. Anthony and Bairstow will surely see lots of playing time at both point and shooting guard spots, while newcomers include Shulga, Vedischev, 2018 Deseret News 6A MVP Steven Ashworth, two-time Montana Gatorade Player of the Year Rollie Worster and Karson Stastny, a walk-on guard out of Celina, Texas.

“We’ll definitely be different and not nearly as experienced,” Smith noted. “But we love our freshman class. They’re a very versatile and skilled group who love to play basketball.

“There’s certainly a lot of unknowns, but we’re also really excited about this group. We have some very, very talented guys. But then, talent doesn’t always win you games.”

The irony heading into Monday is that exactly a year ago, the Aggies’ entire health focus was Queta, who badly injured his left knee on July 20, 2019, in the semifinals of the FIBA U20 European Championships in Portugal. That injury limited the 2020 Mountain West Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year to just 22 games last season.

“(Queta) wasn’t going to risk going back to Europe, and then not being able to get back here,” Smith said. “So, I think he’s had a great offseason and has been working hard. I know he’s been in the weight room a lot, and he’s looking more physically cut, more defined, and has been working on improving his quickness and explosiveness.”

But due to COVID-19, this summer the Aggies’ coaching staff has to be concerned with the health of its entire team, as well as themselves.

“We’ve been saying all along through Zoom meetings and everything that we can’t control the future, but we can train as hard as we can train and take all of the steps we need to take to do our part for the good of the order, so to speak,” Smith said. “There’s definitely a lot of precautionary measures going on at Utah State, and certainly at every school and every conference around the country. But we have to have a sense of responsibility because what you do or don’t do doesn’t just affect you, it affects Neemie or Bean or Marco, everyone you come in contact with.

“There’s certainly no way to guarantee that you won’t get the virus, somehow, someway. But we’ve really tried to emphasize that everyone needs to do their part and be very conscientious, and I think our guys have really bought into that.”