Mountain West Basketball Profile: Utah State Aggies
Utah State looks to rebound after an up-and-down ’17-18 campaign
Craig Smith leads the Aggies into a new era of USU basketball
The first team highlighted in our offseason preview series is Utah State, a program looking to turn the page under the direction of former South Dakota head coach Craig Smith.
Projected Starting Lineup
- G, John Knight III, So., 6-2, 195
- G, Sam Merrill, Jr., 6-5, 210
- G, Diogo Brito, Jr., 6-5, 205
- G/F, Dwayne Brown Jr., Sr., 6-6, 220
- F, Quinn Taylor, Sr., 6-8, 240
Player To Watch
Utah State will lean on Sam Merrill for offensive production in a major way this season. Merrill is an elite three-point shooter, knocking down the third-most attempts from deep in the Mountain West a season ago (including a 46.4 percent mark). Aside from his excellent stroke, Merrill is also a quality passer (assist rate of 19.3), pulled down over three rebounds a game, and recorded 35 steals in ’17-18. With the departure of Koby McEwen to Marquette, Merrill will take over as the veteran leader of the Aggies.
There’s a reason why Diogo Brito was listed on our breakout candidate article this summer. The Portuguese wing enjoyed a productive sophomore season in ’17-18, upping his scoring average from 1.2 to 6.0 points per game while starting 22 games. Brito still has a ways to go on his jump-shooting, converting 30.3 percent of his non-layup attempts last year. A more reliable shot from beyond five feet could make all the difference in Brito’s upperclassman seasons.
Utah State picked up the point guard of both the future and the present when John Knight III signed with the Aggies in May. The 6-2 floor leader played 21 games with Southwest Mississippi Community College as a freshman before transferring to Utah State. Knight averaged 14.3 points per game on 41.7 percent shooting from the floor and led his team with 2.1 blocks per game. Look for Knight to start immediately and lead the Aggies with his abilities on the offensive end.
Biggest Question Mark
Utah State is already down three of its seven players who are listed at 6-6 or taller, so the thin Utah State frontcourt will be tested early and often. JUCO transfer Roche Grootfaam (6-8) and sophomore Klay Stall (6-10) are already on the shelf for the rest of the year, while Dwayne Brown, Jr. may not be ready by opening day due to a broken hand. This could open the door for freshman Neemias Queta, a Portuguese big man who averaged a double-double with Portugal’s U-18 and U-20 teams.
Marquee Non-Conference Matchup
Utah State pieced together a quality non-conference slate, highlighted by a trip to Sin City for the MGM Resorts Main Event. The Aggies will take on Saint Mary’s and then either Arizona State or Mississippi State during Feast Week. Saint Mary’s isn’t nearly as loaded as it has been in recent years, but the Gaels are still fresh off a 30-win campaign and have one of the best mid-major coaches in Randy Bennett. The WCC power is led by Jordan Ford, a junior point guard who averaged 11.1 points per game and shot 44.3 percent from deep last season.
Offensive Production Chart
Thirty Second Breakdown
Utah State enters the fourth year of the post-Stew Morrill era with as many questions as answers. Sam Merrill is an all-conference talent, but the Aggies will be in trouble if he doesn’t have a reliable offensive outlet by his side. A new brand of up-tempo basketball could be exactly what’s need to propel the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum back to its prominence.
Utah State has enough in the tank to make the elite trio of Nevada, New Mexico, and San Diego State nervous when it travels to Logan, although a top six finish in the league is a more realistic expectation. An impressive non-conference schedule will provide a number of tests and could be a springboard for a postseason tournament berth.
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Predicted Order of Finish
Eli Boettger is the lead basketball writer at Mountain West Wire. He’s covered Mountain West basketball since 2015 and his work has been featured on Bleacher Report, NBC Sports, SB Nation, Yahoo Sports, MSN, and other platforms. Boettger is a current USBWA member.