Utah State Basketball: Was It Too Soon To Write Off The Aggies?
Aggies have climbed the conference standings with recent play.
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The Aggies are currently sitting in a three-way tie for second place after a rough conference start.
Utah State was placed on a pretty high pedestal in preseason media coverage, and that may have been unfair. Sam Merrill was pegged as the preseason player of the year and a preseason all-MWC first team member along with sophomore forward Neemias Queta. Not to mention the Aggies were picked to win the Mountain West receiving all seventeen first-place votes in the process.
San Diego State has already clinched the Mountain West regular season title with their 23-point win over New Mexico on Tuesday night at home, but there is still plenty up for grabs. But before we can move forward to this weekends batch of games which still have heavy conference standing implications at stake. Let’s take a look at the Aggie’s season as a whole and try to understand why their recent success feels a bit surprising, but shouldn’t at all.
No Neemias Queta,
The first half of the season was spent without their star Portuguese big man, who sustained a knee injury playing for the Portuguese national team over the summer. At the time his injury seemed like a big blow to Utah State’s hopes at dominance in the coming season, and no one really assumed otherwise. As the seven-foot big man was one of the bigger surprises in all of college basketball in 2018-2019 with ten double-doubles (nine in conference play) while displaying an elite bounce, body control, defensive instincts and a back to the basket game that is hard to find in one package, especially among freshman.
Those performances also got his name on some NBA draft big boards last season, but ultimately deciding to come back to school placed him as a second round pick in the 2020 NBA draft on a couple of draft sites. He’s recently dropped from that position to being outside of the top-60 players draft eligible, but he is still one of the most pro-ready players on any Mountain West roster.
But most feared his absence early on would cause the Aggies to struggle, that wasn’t exactly the case. Queta made his return on Dec. 7th, against Fresno State. The sophomore big man posted six points, 1 rebounds and 1 block. He took some time to adjust back to the game since his injury, but he’s found a rhythm of late. Averaging 18.6 PPG and 8.3 RPG over his last three games (all wins). His presence was missed but the team played some of their best basketball without him in the line up and with him as he adjusted back to game level speeds. The team was 8-1 in his absence playing a smaller line up that at times included junior college transfer Alphonso Anderson in the post who averaged 13.1 PPG & 5.4 RPG without Queta in the lineup versus 6.1 PPG & 3.0 RPG with him in the lineup. He shouldn’t be all to blame for their bad run in January but his absence wasn’t their downfall either.
The Month of January,
Utah State’s reception into the new decade and new year were not kind, as Craig Smith’s team went 4-4 during the month of January. They started off with a 17-point loss to UNLV and caught the Runnin’ Rebels right in the middle of their best run of the season (7-1, from Dec. 21st-Jan. 18th). This was the beginning of a three game losing streak that solidified the Aggies drop from the juggernaut status they were maybe prematurely given in preseason polls and coverage to just another team battling it out behind San Diego State.
I mean it wasn’t the worst month a Mountain West conference team had this season but Utah State was perceived to have the kind of season….well maybe the kind the Aztecs are enjoying. And that no knock on them, because the Aztecs took the expectations that were given to the Aggies back in September to the next level.