It is an exciting game, and it’s the only time I’ll get to play them here. So, I’m going to try and make the most of it. —Utah State guard Sam Merrill, on BYU
LOGAN — Although the Utah State basketball team’s recent road trip certainly wasn’t as long as his two-year mission to Nicaragua, Aggie guard Sam Merrill did note, “I had a similar feeling when we flew back into Salt Lake.”
“That was a long trip,” the sophomore from Bountiful added following practice Friday afternoon. “We played short-handed, and I felt like we gave away a game or two. But I think we learned some important things, and hopefully that will help us going forward.”
The Aggies (4-4), who host Brigham Young (5-2) Saturday night, haven’t played at the Spectrum since routing Mississippi Valley State 83-47 on Nov. 15. Two days later, Tim Duryea’s squad embarked on a five-game, 13-day odyssey that included visits to Spokane, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Nashville; and northern Indiana.
Cougars, Aggies on the air
BYU (5-2) at Utah State (4-4)
Saturday, 7 p.m. MST Dee Glen Smith Spectrum
TV: AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
While the Utah State ended up losing road games at Gonzaga (79-66), Portland State (83-79) and Valparaiso (72-65), and beating Northeastern (71-67) and New Hampshire (77-63) at a tournament in Tennessee on Thanksgiving weekend, the Aggies’ 2-3 record on their trip doesn’t tell the whole story.
Starting point guard Koby McEwen suffered a high-ankle sprain early in the second half of the game against Mississippi Valley State, and the sophomore from Toronto ended playing in just one of the five games, scoring nine points in 25 minutes in the win over Northeastern.
In addition, the Aggies lost freshman guard Brock Miller for an estimated six-to-eight weeks after he broke his right foot at Portland State. The Brighton High product started the second half of that game on Nov. 20 and ended up scoring 15 points in 29 minutes before the broken bone was discovered following the loss.
And one of the players who was starting to emerge in the absence of McEwen and Miller, sophomore guard Diogo Brito, sprained an ankle at Valparaiso.
“Diogo practiced today, so he is making a move,” said Duryea, who has also had to absorb the loss of senior guard Julion Pearre, who suffered a calf injury during a preseason practice and has yet to play this year.
“But Diogo won’t be 100 percent (for the BYU game), Julion Pearre won’t be 100 percent and Koby won’t be 100 percent, but there’s a chance all of them could play. That’s not a certainty. I think Julion will probably play for sure, while Koby and Diogo will probably be a game-day decision.”
A native of Portugal, Brito logged a total of 104 minutes last season as a freshman and wasn’t expected to play in anything more than a backup role this year. But with the injuries to McEwen and then Miller taking their toll, Brito ended up averaging 10.2 points and 25.6 minutes per contest during USU’s road trip before hurting his ankle Tuesday night against the Crusaders.
“He did a great job; he helped us out a lot,” Merrill said of Brito, who started USU’s last three games at a wing spot. “As long as he plays confident, he does a lot of good things. He’s a good passer, a good playmaker and he can knock down shots, as long as he’s confident.
“So, I think he’s going to be really important for us going forward. What he did in those five games, stepping up like that, was awesome.”
It was Merrill, however, who really shouldered the Aggies’ offensive load without his backcourt mate, McEwen, on the floor.
The former Bountiful High star averaged an even 20 points and shot an even 50 percent from the floor in USU’s five games away from home, leading the team in scoring in all of those contests while knocking down a team-high 14 3-pointers.
“Sam’s going a great job. He has really put our basketball team kind of on his back because there’s been so many moving parts around him,” Duryea said. “From night to night, he doesn’t know who he is playing with. Who is on his right, who is on his left and how many minutes they’re going to play.
“But through all of that, he has been steady and really done a tremendous job.”
Coming into the season, Duryea said he hoped to limit the wear-and-tear on Merrill by getting him out of games whenever possible. But with the Aggies’ bench so thin, Merrill averaged nearly 36 minutes per game during USU’s epic journey, including a 39-minute effort at Valparaiso where his shooting percentage finally slipped (6 for 16 from the field, 3 for 11 from 3-point range).
“I played a lot of minutes, and I did get a little tired there towards the end,” Merrill admitted. “But I think I’m OK now. I’ve doing the things I need to do to recover physically, so going forward I should be OK.”
And Merrill said he’s definitely energized and ready to go again with the Cougars coming to town Saturday night, especially after suffering a sub-par performance (2 for 9, four points) in last year’s loss to BYU at Vivint Smart Home Arena.
“I have a couple of really good friends that play for BYU; Zac Seljaas and Dalton Nixon are good friends of mine, and I know most of those guys,” Merrill said. “I grew up coming to these games, and it was frustrating last year the way that we lost. So, there’s a lot of different things that add to this game, not just because it’s BYU.
“But it is an exciting game, and it’s the only time I’ll get to play them here. So, I’m going to try and make the most of it.”