LOGAN — Immediately after settling into a chair for his postgame press conference following the Aggies’ victory over Colorado State at the Spectrum on Jan. 19, Utah State coach Craig Smith found himself looking at the media from the same angle a kindergartener might look at his teacher.
Smith shook his head and smiled as he clawed blindly underneath the chair to adjust its height to one more properly aligned with the table in front of him.
“You can tell Neemie was sitting here,” Smith said with a chuckle as he finally raised himself up to a comfortable level.
“Neemie” would be Neemias Queta, Utah State’s 6-foot-11, 240-pound freshman center who is making life far more uncomfortable for Aggie opponents than any tiny chair or short table might make him.
Officially signed by Smith and his staff last August, the native of Portugal is clearly one of the biggest reasons the Utah State basketball team has been able to elevate its play in 2018-19 in Smith’s first year at the helm. Picked to finish ninth in the preseason poll, the Aggies (20-6 overall, 10-3 in the Mountain West Conference) are tied for second place with Fresno State (19-6, 10-3) heading into Wednesday night’s game against New Mexico (11-14, 5-8) at the Spectrum.
Utah State, which has reached the 20-win plateau for the first time since the 2012-13 season, has been led by the stellar play of junior guard Sam Merrill (second in the MWC in scoring at 20 ppg). But beyond Merrill’s remarkably steady play, no one knew what to expect after a coaching change and the loss of Merrill’s backcourt mate, Koby McEwen, who elected to transfer to Marquette after Tim Duryea and his staff were let go last spring.
Enter Queta, who is already arguably the best rim protector the Utah State basketball program has ever had.
“He’s a load in there,” Fresno State head coach Justin Hutson said after Queta totaled 18 points, 15 rebounds and four blocks in USU’s 82-81 win at Fresno on Feb. 5.
“We wanted try to do as many high ball screens as possible to keep him away from the rim, and he still got back there and not only did he block some shots, but he changed a lot of others.”
Queta is eighth in blocked shots all-time at Utah State —not for a season, but for his career. He’s already blown away Shawn Daniels’ single-season USU record of 59, and his 66 rejections are more than conference rivals Wyoming, Boise State, Colorado State, San Jose State or Air Force have as a team this year.
Because of his athleticism and length — he boasts a 7-foot-5-inch wingspan — Queta doesn’t have to be perfect defensively. And neither do his teammates, who clearly aren’t afraid to funnel someone they’re defending right into the paint and a very large Portuguese trap.
“He covers up a lot of mistakes, there’s no doubt about that,” Smith says of Queta. “He anchors our defense and is an eraser at the rim. And it’s not only the amount of shots that he’s blocked, but the amount of shots that he affects.
“And not only that,” Smith continues. “He also ends possessions. We’re one of the best rebounding teams in the country, and we’re one of the best two-point percentage field goal defenses in the country. And I think a lot of that is our scheme, but there’s no doubt that he’s a big reason for that.”
Utah State ranks first in the Mountain West and 11th in the country in field goal percentage defense (.389), and first in the conference and tied for fifth nationally in rebound margin (plus-9.2 rpg).
Queta, who is averaging 11.3 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, has had to adjust to officiating in the United States — “They let the post players in Europe play a lot more physical,” he says — but he is now, for the most part, staying out of the kind of foul trouble that plagued him early in the season.
Of course, learning how to play under the watchful eyes of American referees isn’t the only thing Queta’s had to adjust to since leaving his home in Barreiro, Portugal — a city of about 75,000 located just across the estuary of the Tagus River from the capital city of Lisbon.
The son of Mica and Dyaneuba Queta, he talks to his family every day on the phone, but that can’t make up for his mother’s cooking. And Queta, who played throughout Europe on Portugal’s U20 national team but had never been to the U.S. before coming here for school, said he was surprised to find “that everything is far from you.”
“You have to drive everywhere, which is really different,” he says. “But I’m getting used to it. And I wouldn’t change my decision to come here. Things are going well, and I’m liking it a lot.”
Queta says he quickly had an appreciation for USU assistant coach Eric Peterson, since only one other suitor from an American university traveled all the way to Portugal to speak to him in person. But even after talking to Smith on the phone and deciding that Utah State would be the best collegiate fit for him, Queta admits that he still had a hard time deciding whether to come to America.
“It was a long process,” he says. “I kept changing my status of coming here or staying in Portugal or going to play pro. Every day a new idea would come into my mind, and I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to stay.’ Then the next day it would be, ‘I can’t wait to play (at Utah State).’
"It was tough.”
Lots of paperwork and the slow process of getting cleared by the NCAA Eligibility Center certainly didn’t help matters, but with his parents’ assistance, Queta finally made the long trip to Utah. And now it’s hard to imagine what the Utah State men’s basketball team would look like without him.
“No one in this league can guard Neemias, so we look to get him touches,” says USU senior forward Quinn Taylor. “But he’s also such a good passer and can really move for a five. Most people think 7-footers are stationary, but he’s very mobile and hard to guard, which just opens up the floor for everyone else.”
Taylor, who served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Brazil, has an even better rapport with Queta because he can speak Portuguese. As does junior guard Diogo Brito, who played on some of the same Portuguese national teams as the 19-year-old Queta just a few years earlier than his countryman.
“I knew of him and I saw him play, but I don’t think he ever saw me play,” Queta says of Brito. “But now he helps me out, and if we’re about to run a set in a game and I don’t know what it is, he’ll just tell me in Portuguese.”
However, Queta does speak very good English, primarily because he learned how to write it in school, then refined his speaking skills by watching lots of American television programs like “The Simpsons.”
Perhaps that’s also where Queta gets his sense of humor. Late in USU’s win over Wyoming on Feb. 13, the big man nearly tumbled into the first row of seats along the baseline after scoring a basket. Soon he could be seen laughing and exchanging high-fives with some much older Aggie fans.
“First of all, he has all of the physical attributes — just his sheer size and the way he moves,” Smith says of Queta. “He’s very long, plays really hard and he’s got good feet and good hands. And he just has a good sense of the game.
“But then you get to know him as a person, and discover what he’s about and his enthusiasm. Neemie’s just such a genuine, appreciative person, and he’s one of those guys that just brings a smile to your face any time you’re around him. Everyone, but especially kids, just love being around him. So, he’s kind of a man of the people in a lot of respects.”7 comments on this story
But Smith then points out that the future NBA prospect isn’t out there on the court just to have fun. He says his Portuguese center is a “steely competitor who has incredibly high expectations for our team and for himself.”
“He’s got a lot of pride,” Smith continues. “Not pride in a negative way, but a tremendous pride about who he is and what he’s about. And I know he feels a lot of pride in Utah State, but also a ton of pride in his country.
“There are a lot of people in his country who are looking up to him — not just literally — in so many ways, and I think he feels a sense of responsibility that goes with that.”