LOGAN — Considering the tornado-like energy that Craig Smith displayed at the press conference when he was introduced as Utah State’s new basketball coach back in March, it should hardly come as a surprise that when asked what his life has been like since being hired, Smith proclaims, “It’s been a whirlwind.”
“It’s hard to believe it’s been three months,” Smith continues. “But I love the direction we’re going. And I’ve been able to meet so many fantastic former players, boosters and people in the community. Wherever I’ve gone, I’ve heard stories from loyal fans who are enthusiastic and passionate.
“And that excitement is very contagious,” adds Smith, who is normally the one dishing out the contagious excitement.
But having just taken the NCAA Coaches Compliance Certification Test, Smith is taking a moment to recover, sipping a Dasani while sitting in a chair near his huge office window earlier this summer. It seems rather surreal, but Smith is now the third Aggie coach to occupy the space since the Wayne Estes Center opened just over four years ago.
After spending his first 16 years in much smaller offices in the Spectrum, Stew Morrill enjoyed the office with the spectacular views of the Wellsville Mountains for just one season before retiring. And his replacement, Tim Duryea, was relieved of his duties in March after three seasons at the Aggie helm.
But Smith, who was hired away from South Dakota by USU athletic director John Hartwell, is embracing life in Cache Valley. His family moved into a house in North Logan a couple of weeks ago, and from the window on the north side of his office, he’s able to point out some of the nearby trails he’s been exploring in his new RZR.
“But we’ve also been doing some hiking; we just did the Wind Cave Trail in Logan Canyon,” Smith notes. “I really got into hiking when I was at Colorado State, and my kids love it too.”
On the basketball court, Smith certainly seems to be facing an uphill climb, as well. The question is, will he and the Aggies be ascending as quickly as a powerful UTV? Or will it be a slow and methodical, hike-like climb to becoming contenders in the Mountain West Conference?
It would certainly come as a surprise if the Aggies were to finish in the top of the league in 2018-19 considering the massive makeover the roster has undergone since March. While forward Alex Dargenton and guard Julion Pearre were the only players lost to graduation, four other Aggies (Koby McEwen, Daron Henson, DeAngelo Isby and Norbert Janicek) have also left the program since the end of last season.
The biggest loss, clearly, is McEwen, who was second on the team in scoring (15.6 ppg) and first in rebounding (5.4 rpg) and assists (3.2 apg). According to Smith, the 2016-17 Mountain West Freshman of the Year had already asked for his release from the Aggies before Smith was hired on March 26.
“It wasn’t official that he was leaving, but I knew that he had requested his release,” Smith said of McEwen, who ended up transferring to Marquette. “So, he requested his release before I was hired, and he was granted the release after I was hired.
“So, it is what it is. That’s the reality of men’s college basketball these days. … We wish Koby the best, but if guys don’t want to be a part of our program, then they should go where they want to be.”
As the Aggies’ roster stands, Smith will have two seniors back from last year’s team in forwards Dwayne Brown Jr. (9.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and Quinn Taylor (6.8 ppg, 4,7 rpg), along with junior guards Sam Merrill (16.3 ppg, 98 3-pointers) and Diogo Brito (6.0 ppg).
Sophomore guards Crew Ainge and Abel Porter, who both backed up McEwen at the point, are also still in Logan, along with freshman forward Justin Bean, who redshirted last season, and sophomore center Klay Stall (back) and redshirt freshman guard Brock Miller (foot), who both missed most the 2017-18 season with injuries.
Smith says Stall is “a full go,” and couldn’t be happier that Merrill elected to remain an Aggie.
“Sam is great,” Smith says of the Bountiful High product. “It’s been fun to get to know him. He’s a winner, through and through. Kind of the All-American kid, right? A great student, who treats people right and has a great Aggie tradition in his family.”
One of only two Aggies to play all 34 games last season — Brown Jr. was the other — Merrill married Aggie soccer player Kanyan Ward in May, but is now in desperate need of a new backcourt partner following McEwen’s departure. Among the players Smith and his staff are looking at are two potential point guards in sophomore John Knight III and freshman Tauriawn Knight.
Smith says a medical issue has kept Knight III from working out this summer, but “that won’t be a big deal.” That apparently leaves both Knights, Ainge and Porter all as contenders in a “wide open” battle for the starting point guard spot.
In the frontcourt, Smith brought in Ke’Sean Davis, a 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward out of Seward County Community College in Kansas, and Ben Fakira, a 6-10, 240-pound forward from Australia. Roche Grootfaam, a Duryea recruit from the College of Southern Idaho, is extremely questionable this season after suffering a serious knee injury during last year’s NJCAA Tournament.
“I think a big thing from the roster that we inherited is that we felt like we had to up our level of athleticism in order to compete in the Mountain West,” Smith says. “I love skilled guys, but we felt like we had to improve our length and athleticism for the 2018 class, and we feel like we’ve done that.”
Smith’s most important recruiting job, however, might have come by convincing two of his assistants from South Dakota to come west with him. Austin Hansen and Eric Peterson are both in Logan after spending the previous four seasons on Smith’s staff in Vermillion.6 comments on this story
Their presence has been “invaluable” as Smith has started to try and implement his system at Utah State.
“Eric and Austin know our language,” Smith explains. “They know exactly what we’re trying to do, and they know our philosophy. We certainly have to adapt to our personnel in some respects, but our core beliefs and our core values will remain the same.
“… You can’t put a price tag on it. Having them come here has affected everything,” Smith adds, while staring out his big office window again. “It’s been huge.”