The basketball season ended for Utah State Thursday night in Long Beach, Calif., but for Coach Kohn Smith another season was just beginning. C'mon along for a ride on one man's recruiting odyssey.
The morning after USU lost to Fullerton in the Big West Conference tournament, Smith left his family behind in southern California and flew back to Salt Lake City to watch a high school all-star game later that night. After the game he returned to the airport to catch a midnight flight to Atlanta, where, after a 31/2-hour layover, he caught a flight to Indianapolis Saturday moring, arriving just in time to watch another high school recruit play. Later that night he watched still another prep recruit in action, and then, for the first time in 48 hours, he went to sleep. This morning, he was to fly back to Salt Lake City just in time to welcome two prep recruits for an on-campus visit."I would have loved to go to Disneyland with my kids," said Smith. "The season's over, I'm disappointed, I'd like to relax. But right now I just can't afford that luxury. We're just working as hard as we can on our recruiting."
And with good reason. Smith loses six graduating players from this year's team - Reid Newey, Dan Conway, Nate Grant, Gilbert Pete, Greg Houskeeper and Stan Pepek.
"We've got a lot of rebuilding to do," says Smith.
Not to mention some improvements to make. Smith's first season as head coach at USU was a rocky one all the way through to a 12-16 finish. There was Conway's season-long slump. There was the tough December schedule. There was Houskeeper's back problem. There was Grant's back problem, which grew so severe that, by the end of the season, his legs were visibly wobbly during games. "He just has no strength," says Smith, who rolls his eyes and shakes his head when he ponders the pain and discomfort Grant will face in later years.
Then there was Smith himself, getting in trouble with the conference powers-that-be with his candid, blunt remarks about the UNLV program. And there was the Aggies' inexperience and, later, lack of depth, on the guardline, which explains all those turnovers. Wylie Thomas quit. Al Chappell suffered a season-ending knee injury just as he and the Aggies were hitting their stride. Newey was sick much of the winter.
Through all the coming and going, there were 10 different starting lineups. "This was a fragile team," says Smith.
USU was good enough to sweep Big West runner-up New Mexico State, but bad enough to lose to lowly Pacific. In the end the Aggies, who won just three road games all year and lost five league games by four points or less, missed a second-place finish by two games, settling for a three-way tie for fourth.
"People say we had a bad year, but we were 10-8 in a league that's pretty tough," says Smith. "It was a frustrating year, but there are some things I'm very proud of. Reid Newey made first-team all-conference. He was a much better player this year in all areas, compared to last year, and that's because of his hard work. Also, the development of Kendall Youngblood as a freshman. A lot of coaches told me he couldn't play guard in college . . . He played inside in high school and never had to handle the ball much, but he's gotten better with each game."
Newey, the highest scoring guard in USU history (with 1,536 points) finished second to CSF's Cedric Ceballos in a poll of Big West players for Player of the Year honors. He finished second in the league in scoring, averaging 19 points a game. Youngblood was named the Big West Freshman of the Year.
Besides Youngblood, who averaged 10 points a game most of the year, the Aggies return three promising veteran players next year: Darrel White, a 6-6 forward who averaged about 10 points a game - and more before a minor late-season knee injury; Chris Sheehan, another prep center-turned-guard; and Chappell, although his knee injury might force him to sit out next year, as well. The Aggies also have two promising redshirt players in Nathan Wickizer, a 6-11 freshman from Woods Cross, and Randy Funk, a 6-7 junior from Hyrum and Utah Valley Community College.
Plus, the Aggies will get Todd Bearup, who is one of USU's top prep recruits of recent years, back from a mission. A sophomore, Bearup, who has outstanding leaping ability, reportedly grew two inches to 6-7 while on his mission.
In the meantime, Smith is seeking recruits in both the junior college and prep ranks. He needs immediate help at point guard, particularly if Chappell is unable to return next year. The Aggies averaged nearly 20 turnovers a game this year, which played a huge role in their undoing. Another point guard also would allow Youngblood to play his more natural positions - off-guard or small forward.
"We'll be rebuilding now," says Smith. "We're looking at guards and some big people. The recruiting looks good."