In baseball, the game’s best are defined as five-tool guys who excel in all phases. The same applies to basketball. To truly be great, you can’t just be one-dimensional or even two-dimensional, and nobody proved that better than this year’s five Deseret News boys basketball MVPs.
All five were among the leading scorers in their respective classifications, but they also made their mark in many other ways whether it was rebounding, defending, getting their teammates involved or simply filling a leadership need.
Not all of the Deseret News MVPs ended up winning a state championship, but they were definitely among the best players in the state.
Here’s a summary of this year’s MVPs as picked by the Deseret News. The first-, second- and third-team selections as well as honorable mentions were voted on by the coaches.
Matt Conway, Pleasant Grove
The glitzy new Adobe building in Lehi has been a shot in the arm for Utah’s economy, and as it turns out, a huge coup for Pleasant Grove’s basketball program as well.
In the year before Matt Conway’s father, Dan — a former Utah State player in the ’80s — was transferred from Arizona to Utah to work at the Adobe building, Pleasant Grove’s basketball team won four games.
In the two years since Conway arrived, the Vikings won 37 regular season games and tripled their playoff victories from the past 12 seasons.
Sometimes it’s tough to quantify exactly what a player means to a program, but in Conway’s case, it’s very, very easy.
“He’s been a real asset not just as a basketball player but as a young man who represented our program, himself and Pleasant Grove so well. I’m proud of the way he’s grown and developed,” said Pleasant Grove coach Randy McAllister.
When Conway arrived in Utah, he was a talented but young basketball player anxious to prove himself. During the past two years though, he transformed himself into a big man who can run the floor like a guard and a dominant rebounder.
He finished the season averaging 22.8 points and 8.9 rebounds, third-best in 5A in both categories this year. The Vikings rode that productivity to a share of the Region 4 title and a runner-up finish in the 5A state championship.
“We improved our style over last year and tried to be up tempo. With Riley Court and all the seniors we had this year, the getting out and going and pushing after make, pushing after miss just fed right into Matt’s strength, he’s an athletic kid who can get up and down the court,” said McAllister.
McAllister estimates that of Conway’s 22.8 points per game, roughly eight came in transition by sprinting the floor and beating defenders down court. Many more he created for himself with offensive rebounds, and he was a great free-throw shooter, too.
“At 6-foot-6, he’s not the biggest post in the state by any means, but his desire was unmatched. When he was really focused and on his game, he just refused to be boxed out,” said McAllister.
Conway, who leaves on an LDS mission in July, has offers from Dixie State, Snow College and BYU Hawaii, and he’s garnering additional collegiate interest from Utah State and Utah Valley.
Sam Merrill, Bountiful
Late in the preseason of Sam Merrill’s sophomore season at Bountiful, a spot in the starting lineup opened up when one of his teammates sprained an ankle.
Three years later, Merrill is leaving the Bountiful program as one of the best in school history.
“When he stepped in, we quickly learned we couldn’t live without him on the court,” said Bountiful coach Mike Maxwell.
With Merrill in the starting lineup the past 2½ years, Bountiful posted a staggering 61-6 record, including this year’s 4A state championship — the school’s first since 1997.
Of those six losses, two came in the 4A semifinals, including last year’s gut-wrenching loss to Sky View on Jalen Moore’s overtime half-courter. Merrill scored a career-high 35 points in that loss, and the half-courter was probably the only way he was going to be denied on that night.
Merrill will take his talents to Utah State after serving an LDS mission, and Maxwell said Stew Morrill is getting a winner of the finest quality.
“In AAU ball, or everywhere he goes, teams are better when he’s on the court. Sometimes you can’t put your hand on it, he’s just doing the right things at the right times, some of it’s so subtle, it’s unreal what he does,” said Maxwell.
Merrill’s scoring actually went down this season, dropping from 18.3 ppg during his junior year to 15.9, but the talented Braves didn’t really need him to score to be successful. Don’t be mistaken, he still got his points, finishing 11th in 4A in scoring, but he made his presence felt in other areas. He led 4A with 7.3 assists and finished sixth with 2.1 steals.
“He does what he has to do to make sure we win, that’s where the versatility is so impressive. A lot of kids can do a lot of things, but Sam does the right things at the right time to make sure we’re winning,” said Maxwell
That was never more evident than in the 4A championship game. On a night when Orem’s defense flustered everyone else on the floor, Merrill was his steady, usual self, scoring 21 points and dishing out four assists in the 44-43 victory.
Garren Miles, Morgan
When Garren Miles came off the bench to score 12 points for Morgan in last year’s 3A championship game victory over Bear River, in a subtle way it signaled that the program was going to be just fine despite the graduation of 3A's Jake Miles — Garren’s cousin.
Sure enough, with Garren Miles leading the way, Morgan enjoyed another dominant season, capturing a second straight 3A state championship after ending the season on a 16-game winning streak.
Miles led the Trojans in scoring, averaging 15.7 points per game, in addition to averaging 2.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.8 steals.
“This year he just stepped up leadershipwise. Characterwise he made big growths. He’s just been a fun kid to coach and got after it,” said Morgan coach Jim Wiscombe.
On such a deep team, Miles didn’t need to average 20-plus for the Trojans to be successful, but the dynamite shooter was certainly capable of filling that role when necessary.
He scored 20-plus points on eight occasions this season, and led 3A with 56 3-pointers — including two each in all four Morgan playoff victories.
Defensively, Miles relished the opportunity to guard some of the state’s best players, an area he excelled in. Against Box Elder back in the preseason, Miles helped limit 4A’s second-leading scorer Shad Watson to just 12 points. A month later in a region game against Juan Diego, he helped frustrate 3A leading scorer Gabe Colosimo, limiting him to just five points.
“He can shoot the ball, he can handle the ball, but what was good this year was his length, he’s a long kid for his size so he got in passing lanes and got rebounds for us,” said Wiscombe.
Cody John, Wasatch Academy
For a team that won 26 basketball games this season with a 33-point average margin of victory, there wasn’t really one indispensable player for Wasatch Academy.
Junior Cody John, however, was the player who undeniably held it all together.
“When he’s on the floor, I’m comfortable. He settles me down, he settles the team down,” said Wasatch Academy coach Geno Morgan.
And when John was on his game, a team that was already unbeatable became even more dominant. John finished the season averaging 18.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 3.7 steals.
All four statistical categories improved from his sophomore season when he was also named the Deseret News 2A MVP after averaging 15.2 points, 2.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.6 steals.
“At the beginning of the year he was really consistent, you could tell that he was taking his game to another level. He was shooting better, he was being more aggressive,” said Morgan. “The thing with Cody, he’s a nice kid and I’m trying to get him to play more angry.”
John was actually at his best, and flashed some of that mean streak, when Wasatch Academy played in out-of-state tournaments this year.
When the Tigers played 2A competition, the games were all blowouts, and John often took a backseat to his teammates, content to be a facilitator offensively and focus more defensively. Against tougher competition in 11 out-of-state tournament games, John averaged 22.0 points, including 32 in a 75-74 loss to Dillard, Fla., in the West Anchorage Tournament championship game, the Tigers’ lone loss of the season.
When necessary, Morgan said John can quickly morph into an elite scorer.
“His ability to put the ball in the basket is his biggest asset. I tell people all the time, he can just flat-out score. He can score in so many different ways; that’s what makes him valuable. And then when he starts being unselfish and kicking the ball out when you come over and help, he can be unguardable at the times,” said Morgan.
John is getting collegiate interest right now from Utah, Utah State and New Mexico State, and with Wasatch Academy expecting to face an even tougher tournament schedule next year, he’ll have even more opportunities to impress.
Tyce Barney, Panguitch
Over the past four years, Tyce Barney dominated 1A basketball unlike anyone perhaps ever. And even though his quest for the elusive state championship his senior season came up one basket short, what Barney accomplished won’t soon be forgotten.
After averaging 23.8 and leading Panguitch to a 24-2 record and a 1A runner-up finish, he finished his four-year career with a staggering 1,985 total points. That ranks him seventh in state history, just ahead of greats like Richfield’s Ryan Cuff, Lone Peak’s Nick Emery and Judge’s Jimmy Soto, and just behind Spanish Fork’s Robbie Reid.
Barney also averaged 8.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.6 steals.
“In the 12 years I’ve been here at Panguitch, Tyce has been the most fundamental kid I’ve ever coached,” said Panguitch coach Clint Barney, Tyce’s father. “He shoots the ball right, he rebounds, he passes, he defends, and for a kid who’s not super athletic, I think he’s really got the most out of what he could give to a team.
“He’s been the poster boy of Panguitch basketball for four years, and that’s going to be hard to replace.”
Barney had hoped to become just the seventh player in state history to reach the 2,000-point plateau, and he probably would’ve had Panguitch prioritized that individual goal at the state tournament.
“You get into the state tournament and you play in games against good teams, against good coaches who prepare. We maybe could’ve played a different style and tried to get his points, but we were in to win as a team,” said Barney. “Two thousand is a great number, but just being among those in the record books in the top 10, a kid from Panguitch to be able to accomplish that, I think down the line he’ll be pretty satisfied.”
At a bigger school, Barney would’ve likely played as a shooting guard or small forward, but in 1A he played in the paint, which makes his productivity that much more impressive.
“He’s had to go in there and bang every night and do all the dirty work for us,” said Barney.
Photo credits: Scott G Winterton, Matt Gade, Tom Smart, Deseret News; Tyce Barney photo courtesy Panguitch