Even with three starters departing in the offseason, Utah State is off to its best Mountain West start ever at 9-0.
Much like Dayton, San Diego State, Rutgers and several others, Utah State enjoyed a storybook season before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the 2020 postseason.
For the second year in a row, the Aggies hit their stride to close out the regular season, culminating in hometown hero Sam Merrill’s game-clinching 3-pointer in the Mountain West title game, upsetting then-30-1 San Diego State.
For a few days, everything about Utah State’s conference crown felt perfect. But in the coming week, as we know and remember far too well, the NCAA canceled March Madness due to the health concerns stemming from coronavirus.
No coach would be willing to admit it, but a team like Utah State had every right to sulk and rewind what-if scenarios throughout the spring while the world was (and still is) in lockdown. The Aggies just completed a stunning run to punch their NCAA Tournament ticket behind a trio of veteran starters in Sam Merrill, Abel Porter and Diogo Brito, in addition to Neemias Queta, who many anticipated would be off to the NBA.
Instead, the Utah State program, like everyone else, had to pick the pieces up and forge ahead.
Merrill and Brito graduated while Porter grad-transferred to Ohio State, leaving several question marks in the Aggie backcourt — the team’s calling card since head coach Craig Smith took over in 2018.
Smith’s staff remained aggressive on the transfer market throughout the spring and summer in hopes of filling backcourt gaps. Utah State was on the shortlist for several notable transfers, including Stony Brook’s Makale Foreman (who committed California), DePaul’s Devin Gage (Fresno State), Seattle’s Terrell Brown (Arizona), Penn’s Ryan Betley (California) and Northern Kentucky’s Jalen Tate (Arkansas).
Despite 54 wins and two March Madness bids in as many years, each of the aforementioned transfers took their talents elsewhere.
Once again, Utah State had no choice but to forge ahead.
The good news was all-league center Neemias Queta opted to return for his junior year after once being viewed as a one-and-done prospect. Queta’s decision ensured that USU’s three-headed frontcourt monster — along with double-double machine Justin Bean and productive reserve Alphonso Anderson — would remain.
The backcourt still had its fair share of question marks. Virginia transfer guard Marco Anthony was a 2019 national champion but played sparingly under Tony Bennett, sitting out as a redshirt during the ’19-20 season. Four other promising freshmen guards — Rollie Worster, Steven Ashworth, Max Shulga and Zahar Vedischev — joined the fold as well, welcoming long-term promise but needing time to acclimate to D-I speed, especially with the transition coming during a pandemic.
But instead of falling back into the Mountain West’s middle tier, Utah State has only risen. Smith’s dedication to program culture has oozed its way throughout the staff and within the youthful roster.
“Any good corporation, program and organization starts at the top and (Smith) has done a good job setting the tone of what our culture is,” Utah State assistant coach David Ragland said on the Mountain West Hoops Insider on All-Access Network on Tuesday.
Despite what the outside may believe, Utah State’s staff will say it’s a player-led program. Veterans are expected to teach the youngsters, building chemistry and learning each other’s skill sets as a result.
“I credit our incomers for wanting to be coached, not only by our coaching staff but by the upperclassmen,” Ragland said.
Utah State’s young guards have delivered and then some. Anthony has taken on a substantial role, ushering in the new-look backcourt with the tune of 11.3 points, five rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. Worster, meanwhile, has started all 15 games, using his football frame to be a force on both ends while Ashworth is adding 7.1 points and 40 percent 3-point shooting as a reserve.
Their steady starts are a further credit to the remaining experience on the team, and how the staff places its trust in its players.
“It’s a credit to Justin Bean, Brock Miller, Neemias Queta, Alphonso Anderson and the guys who have already been there and done that. They set the tone for what the young guys do and they came into the offseason workouts ready to go.”
Where Utah State has made its biggest stride is on the defensive end, posting the No. 6 defense nationally in efficiency, according to KenPom.com. In nine league games, the Aggies have allowed no more than 64 points.
Smith has recorded four consecutive seasons of at least 22 wins, though none of his teams have reached this defensive tier.
With Queta protecting the rim as one of the nation’s elite shot blockers, Bean and Anderson locking down the frontcourt, and the young guards contesting perimeter shots and playing passing lanes, Utah State has proven to be a remarkably challenging team to score against.
“I think we have a little bit more athleticism (than last year). I think (Anthony) is different from Sam Merrill, Abel Porter and Diogo Brito in that he’s strong, physical and athletic. Rollie Worster is a freshman but he played football and he’s not afraid of physicality. Steven Ashworth is obviously not the biggest guy out there but has one of the biggest hearts — he’s a tough dude who’s not afraid to put his nose in any fight,” Ragland said.
It’s typically the expectation that young teams require more time to mesh defensively. Since allowing 85 and 83 points against VCU and South Dakota State, respectively, to open the season 0-2, the Aggies have grown up before our eyes to become an immediate MWC threat and March Madness at-large candidate.
“What we did the first two years — you get to a certain level and you set a different expectation,” Ragland said.
Though the faces have changed, Utah State hasn’t missed a beat and is now looking to take the program to new heights in Logan.