Utah State Basketball: Previewing the Aggies’ 2020-21 Season
Aggies, picked 3rd in preseason poll, will look to its star big men
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Will Neemias Queta be able to carry this team on his shoulders without Sam Merrill?
2019-20 AT A GLANCE
- 2019-20 Record – 26-8 (12-6, T-2th in MW)
- Defeated San Diego State in MW championship
- Final DPI Rankings – #34 in nation, #2 in MW
- Offseason Departures – Sam Merrill (19.7 PPG), Diogo Brito (8.5 PPG), Abel Porter (5.6 PPG), Roche Grootfaam (3.3 PPG), Klay Stall (1.7 PPG), Carson Bischoff (DNP)
2020-21 AT A GLANCE
- Head Coach – Craig Smith (3rd year; 54-15 at Utah State)
- Assistant Coaches – Austin Hansen, Eric Peterson, David Ragland
- Marco Anthony, G, Jr. – 1.2 PPG for Virginia in 2018-19
- Brock Miller, G, Jr. – 8.4 PPG, 61 3PM, 0.5 SPG
- Alphonso Anderson, F, Sr. – 8.1 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 0.6 SPG
- Justin Bean, F, Jr. – 11.9 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 1.5 BPG
- Neemias Queta, C, Jr. – 13.0 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.7 BPG
- Sean Bairstow (G, Soph.), Kuba Karwowski (C, Sr.), Steven Ashworth (G, Fr.), Zahar Vedischev (G/F, Sr.), Max Shulga (G, Fr.), Trevin Dorius (C, Soph.), Szymon Zapala (C, Fr.), Liam McChesney (F, Fr.), Rollie Worster (G, Fr.)
2020-21 TEAM OUTLOOK
It is always difficult to bounce back after losing arguably the best player in program history, which is exactly the scenario Utah State finds itself in after seeing Sam Merrill cap his star-studded career with a game-winning shot in the Mountain West Tournament in March. It also didn’t help to see defensive mage Diogo Brito graduate, and worse still to see floor general Abel Porter transfer to Ohio State and subsequently retire due to medical issues. Luckily for Craig Smith, a few very important pieces are back, and that should be enough to keep the Aggies’ from falling too far.
Chief among the returning talent for Utah State is Neemias Queta, whose stock has taken a bit of a tumble following a slow start to last season upon his return from a knee injury suffered at the FIBA World Cup. It was never a lock that Utah State was going to get a second year out of Queta, but thanks to the brief dip in productivity, they’ll get at least one more.
Let it be known: Reports of Queta’s decline have been wildly exaggerated.
Over the final ten games of the season, Queta averaged 15.6 points, 9.4 rebounds. and 2.4 blocks per game, while shooting 60% from the floor and logging over 30 minutes per night. Those numbers should answer any questions about whether he is fully recovered from injury. However, the loss of Merrill could force the Aggies to become more one-dimensional on offense, increasing the chances that Queta’s statistics take a dip again as he draws even greater attention from opposing defenses.
If Utah State is going to remain successful, the pieces around Queta will need to step up. Justin Bean is the most obvious candidate to become the second option on offense, with the junior coming off a season where he averaged a double-double (11.9 PPG, 10.5 RPG). Bean also contributed heavily on defense registering over two “stocks” per game (1.5 SPG, 0.7 BPG). That was enough to earn Bean the top spot in our Five for ’21 list for the league’s top returning defenders.
Also returning for Utah State are Brock Miller and Alphonso Anderson, both of whom played huge roles for last season’s team. Miller started 29 games in the Aggie backcourt as a junior and knocked down 60 three-pointers. The senior guard’s long-range shooting has dipped in quality over the past few seasons, so he will need to prove that he can handle the added responsibility. of being the go-to option from beyond the arc. Anderson, meanwhile, was a huge piece off the bench in first season for Utah State after transferring into the program as a junior. He returns for his final year as a likely starter after averaging eight points per game in just 18 minutes a night.
Another "under-the-radar" talent by @JonRothstein in junior transfer Marco Anthony. @CoachSmith_USU has described him as having muscles on muscles! #AggiesAllTheWay https://t.co/kIkf74LuiE pic.twitter.com/1ipC1q4eys
— USU Men's Hoops (@USUBasketball) November 4, 2020
The biggest question mark for Utah State will be the newest addition to the backcourt, Virginia transfer Marco Anthony. He never really broke into Tony Bennett’s rotation during his two seasons in Charlottesville, but once upon a time, Anthony registered as a three-star recruit on 247Sports. Perhaps the down-transfer will help Anthony play to a level slightly more suited to his still-considerable talent. The fact that he was good enough to land in Charlottesville says something about the young guard, but he still has to prove it on the court.
“I like our guards, I really do, but until they are out there and thrown in the fire, don’t know exactly what you are going to get,” Coach Smith said of his team recently. “Marco needs to be vocal. He is a very talented young man, very determined. He has done a very good job talking and really trying to bring the freshmen along with him. Marco is very versatile and can do a lot of things on the floor. He needs to have an impact for us. He has had a good summer and a good camp up to this point.”
Coming off the bench will be a mix of returning players such as Sean Bairstow, Kuba Karwowski, and Trevin Dorius, while Craig Smith also adds a trio of young freshmen with FIBA experience in Zahar Vedischev (Russia), Max Shulga (Ukraine), and Szymon Zapala (Czech Republic). Vedischev and Shulga will add shooting depth, while the 6-11 Zapala adds another towering figure on the bench next to 7-footers Karwowski and Dorius. Freshman guard Steven Ashworth is an in-state product that should log some minutes at the point behind Anthony, who is not necessarily a natural pure point guard. Other players like Liam McChesney and Rollie Worster could see minutes as reserves, as well.
2020-21 SCHEDULE OUTLOOK
(Note: As of this writing, the school’s athletics website does not have any games listed for the 2020-21 season.)
The Aggies were supposed to play in the Myrtle Beach Invitational, one of the ESPN Events that was slated to take place in Orlando, before disputes over COVID-19 testing protocols caused the event to be cancelled. It’s a shame, too, because the rest of the field included Dayton, Loyola Chicago, Pittsburgh, Missouri, Charlotte, Penn, and Nebraska.
The Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic can't stop, won't stop.
Days after Ohio State bailed due to COVID-19 concerns, Utah State was named as a replacement. The Aggies will take on Wichita State in the first round on Nov. 25, and Memphis slides into a matchup with Saint Mary's.
— Brian Hamilton (@_Brian_Hamilton) November 11, 2020
Fortunately for Utah State’s tournament hopes, the Aggies have been added to the field for the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic event in Sioux Falls, S.D. They will start the season on November 25 against Wichita State, who is going through their own transition of having to replace a cornerstone member of the program (albeit a very different situation). The rest of the field includes Creighton, West Virginia, Northern Iowa, Memphis, Saint Mary’s, and South Dakota State.
While things looked dire on the scheduling front for a time, Utah State actually finds themselves in a much better MTE than they had originally scheduled. According to The D1 Docket, the Aggies also have matchups against BYU (12/5), Saint Mary’s (12/12), Dixie State (12/15), and Mississippi State (12/19) on their non-conference slate. On the whole, this is a very solid early schedule for Utah State, and it provides the Aggies with plenty of opportunities to build an at-large resume.
As for conference play, the Aggies were picked to finish in the top three, but it is unclear how much of that is based on recent history. Craig Smith and his staff have done a tremendous job with this team, but programs like UNLV and Colorado State are nipping at their heels and may have fewer question marks entering the season. When the team had Sam Merrill around, they were able to survive some inconsistency from Neemias Queta. Without the coverage, though, the margin for error becomes much slimmer for Queta and the rest of the team.
The Aggies’ success hinges as much as anything on Marco Anthony (or one of the other guards) stepping into the starting lineup and contributing immediately. If there is any delay in production in the backcourt, and guys like Queta and Bean aren’t able to make up for it on their own, this Utah State team could easily lose a step or two in the Mountain West race and slip down the leaderboard.
It’s hard to imagine that Utah State is going to run through the league and win another Mountain West crown to go with the 2018-19 regular season title and the 2019-20 tournament title. But even with the turnover on the roster, it’s even harder to imagine this team slipping out of the top half of the league.
Expect Utah State to trade punches with every team they face, from the opening tip at the Sanford Pentagon all the way through league play. If they’re able to land a few well-placed haymakers along the way, this team has an outside chance of snagging an at-large bid.
And hey, if they struggle along the way, they can always just pull off another miracle in the Mountain West tournament, right?
Andrew Dieckhoff (@andrewdieckhoff) is a USBWA member writing about college basketball for Mountain West Wire of the USA TODAY Sports Media Group. He is also the creator of the Dieckhoff Power Index basketball analytics system and provides analytics coverage for Heat Check CBB. Andrew is a returned Peace Corps Volunteer and a graduate of Portland State University. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.