No. 17 Utah State finds itself in a new role this season — the hunted, not the hunter.
After surging to the Mountain West regular-season and tournament titles in coach Craig Smith’s first season, the Aggies were the unanimous choice to repeat as league champions by the conference media, the first unanimous choice in league history.
Smith called the recognition “humbling,” but put it in perspective as the Aggies prepared to host long-time rival Montana State at Logan, Utah, in the 119th meeting between the two in the season opener for both Tuesday.
“We aren’t really into polls and rankings in our program,” Smith told reporters. “This team hasn’t proven anything. Our goal is to be on top of the (Mountain West) at the end of the year.”
Senior guard Sam Merrill leads a group of four returning starters for the Aggies, who are ranked in the season-opening AP Top 25 for the third time in school history, the first since the 1970-71 season.
The 6-foot-5 Merrill was the Mountain West regular-season player of the year and the postseason tournament MVP while averaging 20.9 points, 4.2 assists and 3.9 rebounds. He scored in double figures in all but one of the 35 games.
Merrill flirted with declaring for the 2019 draft and was in the early stages of setting up workouts with NBA teams before opting to return to school.
“Was at the point of probably declaring, the whole spiel, but at the end of May I talked to some people and felt like was it better for me personally and the team to not even worry about it and focus on what I could improve on this summer,” Merrill told NCAA.com.
“As a ball-handler, I can continue to improve and continue to work on my shot-making ability. I know that the end of the day, you are going to have to make shots.”
Decorated 6-11 sophomore center Neemias Queta, the reigning Mountain West freshman of the year and defensive player of the year, returns, as do junior guard Abel Porter and sophomore guard Brock Miller. Porter started the final 17 games at point last season, when the Aggies were 15-2.
While going 28-7 last season, Utah State was one of two teams to finish in the top-10 in NCAA Division I in defensive field goal percentage, assists per game and rebounding margin. Michigan State was the other.
The Aggies received a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the highest seed in program history, but fell to No. 9 seed Washington in the first round.
“Our guys have really gotten better over the summer,” Smith said.
Senior guard Harald Frey, a second-team All-Big Sky selection last season, is one of three returning starters on a Montana State team that was picked to finish seventh by the coaches and the media. Frey averaged 17.2 points a game.
“The guys are really buying into what we are teaching,” said first-year coach Danny Sprinkle, who was the Big Sky freshman of the year in 1996 and was a three-time all-league selection.
“We’re taking gradual steps. I want to be a physical defensive team that makes you score over us. We are not going to give up uncontested shots. We’re still a work in progress, but that’s one thing.”
–Field Level Media