LOGAN — Prior to the start of his inaugural season as the head coach at Utah State, Craig Smith said one of his primary goals was to build a culture of toughness and togetherness.
“In other words, tougherness, as we like to say,” Smith said with a laugh.
“Toughness and togetherness equal tougherness, and so that’s been a major emphasis.”
That was back in the middle of the summer, well before Smith ever led the Aggies in a full preseason practice, and long before he coached his first official game as the head coach at Utah State.
Now 19 games into the season, it’s obvious that “tougherness” has genuinely caught with the surprisingly good Aggies.
“We’re all in collectively, and we trust Coach Smith and his staff,” USU guard Brock Miller proclaimed after the Aggies’ win over Colorado State last Saturday. “We’ll do anything they say, and I think that is what has pushed us over the edge in so many games this season and has helped us win.
“We all believe in him, and we all love Coach Smith. We would all run through a brick wall for this guy.”
Of course, coming into the 2018-19 season, most prognosticators figured the Aggies had a better chance of running through a brick wall than being a contender in the Mountain West. The preseason media poll predicted a ninth-place finish for Smith’s squad, but as Utah State prepares for Saturday’s game at New Mexico (3-4, 9-10), the Aggies are 14-5 overall and 4-2 in conference play — good for fourth place, behind only No. 7 Nevada (6-1, 19-1), Fresno State (5-1, 14-4) and UNLV (5-1, 11-7).
When asked if he’s surprised that his team has won 14 of its first 19 games, Smith replied with an answer that suggests he’s kind of on the fence — or maybe a brick wall.
“Ummm … no. I mean, yes and no,” Smith admitted. “We said when we were picked ninth — and deservedly so — is that polls don’t mean anything, except it tells you the respect that you have, right?
“And so we were picked ninth, but our guys never believed in all that stuff.”
A year ago at this time, the Aggies were 10-9 overall, 3-3 in league play and stuck in the middle of a four-game losing streak. Utah State ended up finishing eighth in the conference with an 8-10 record and 17-17 overall, a so-so season that led to the firing of head coach Tim Duryea after three years.
Duryea’s dismissal led to the transfer of standout sophomore guard Koby McEwen to Marquette, along with the departure of freshman forward Daron Henson to Salt Lake Community College. Add in the graduation of seniors Julion Pearre and Alex Dargenton, and that didn’t leave Smith with a whole lot of returning production to work with other than guards Sam Merrill and Diogo Brito and forward Dwayne Brown Jr.
But come August, Smith and his staff were able to secure the commitment of Neemias Queta, a 6-foot-11, 225-pound center out of Portugal who is looking more and more like a program changer for the Aggies.
Queta is averaging 11 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game, while seemingly altering every shot taken by an opponent in the paint.
“Neemias was an animal, quite frankly, today, protecting the rim,” Smith proclaimed after Queta totaled 18 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks against the Rams. “He really anchored us. I thought he was really, really good, especially early on. You could see the energy. He's a tough kid and accepts coaching.”
While McEwen and Merrill gave the Aggies one of the best backcourts in the conference the previous two seasons, Queta and Merrill now make up arguably the best inside-outside combo in the Mountain West.
During his junior season, Merrill is second in the league in scoring at 18.7 points per game, and is the only player in the Mountain West in the top seven in all three shooting percentages. The Bountiful High product is first in free-throw percentage (.899), sixth in field-goal percentage (.483) and seventh in 3-point field goal percentage (.375).
But the Aggies, who have had five players score in double figures in their past two games, are hardly a two-man team this year.
Miller, who redshirted last season after suffering a foot injury early in the year, has been coming on strong and is shooting 44.4 percent from 3-point range and averaging 11.7 points per game in conference play. And senior forward Quinn Taylor, whom Smith called “Mr. Dependable,” is averaging 8.5 points and 6.2 rebounds per game, while Brown is putting up 9.1 points and four rebounds while coming off the bench.
What the Aggies lack, however, is a true point guard who is also a scoring threat. Junior college transfer John Knight III left the program a few weeks ago due to academic issues, and sophomore Crew Ainge started at the point the first 18 games before Smith made the switch to sophomore Abel Porter against Colorado State. The former Davis Dart has played well of late, putting up 14 points against Fresno State and scoring some key buckets against the Rams late in the game, while freshman guard Tauriawn Knight is working his way into the rotation.
But despite their issues at point guard, primarily thanks to Merrill’s 4.3 assists per game, the Aggies actually lead the MWC and are 22nd in the country in assists per game at 16.7.
“I feel like since Nevada, we’ve passed it much more efficiently,” Smith said, taking note of USU’s most-lopsided loss of the season, a 72-49 defeat at Reno on Jan. 2.
The Aggies are also first in the conference and fourth in the nation in rebound margin at +10.6 rpg, and first in the league and sixth in the country in defensive field goal percentage at .379.3 comments on this story
Those kind of numbers have led to an 8-1 record at home, and a 4-3 mark on the road for a team that went 2-11 away from home last year. And while there’s a lot of basketball left to be played this season, Smith clearly has Utah State headed in the right direction much quicker than most people anticipated.
“I think he’s done a phenomenal job with this program so far, and you know what? We’re not satisfied. We’re going to continue climbing,” Miller said of Smith. “That’s what he expects — night in and night out.
“There’s no satisfaction with him. He wants to win every single game, get the Mountain West championship and get to the tournament and make a run. That’s the goal, but we’ve got to go game by game, and he makes that very clear.”