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Eli Lucero/Herald Journal
Utah State head coach Craig Smith celebrates with forward Justin Bean (12) after the Aggies defeated New Mexico 71-55 during an NCAA basketball game, Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/Herald Journal via AP)

SALT LAKE CITY — Craig Smith jabbered a mile a minute when introduced to Utah State boosters and the media, last spring, but already the first-year basketball coach’s record has caught up with the rhetoric.

He’s still good at dropping one-liners, but he’d much rather watch his guards dropping 3s. That part is working out nicely. USU is third in the Mountain West Conference in distance shooting.

Wednesday at the Spectrum, his Aggies stretched their record to 21-6 with a 71-55 win over New Mexico. Smith has barely been in Utah long enough to pick up his laundry, but already the team is being mentioned as an at-large entrant in the NCAA Tournament. This kind of premature speculation annoys many coaches, but not Smith.

“Our guys have been seeing this stuff for the last three months,” he said this week. “You can try to insulate your guys from all that, but I don’t really believe in that. The world is what it is, so welcome to reality. Nowadays you’re not going to hide anything anyway.”

One reality is that he's producing the best season USU has had since 2010-11, when Stew Morrill took his team to the NCAA Tournament. That team won the WAC by five games, going 15-1. This year’s Aggies won’t do that, as they already have three league losses. But conference leader Nevada lost its second game of the season Wednesday at San Diego State, allowing USU to pull within a half-game of first place.

Meanwhile, the Aggies are generating respectable buzz. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had USU listed among his “first four out” of the tourney earlier this week, as did cbssports.com. But Sports Illustrated’s bracket watch has them among the “last four in” the 68-team NCAA field.

ESPN’s Basketball Power Index ranks the Aggies No. 51 and the latest RPI has them No. 43 — within striking distance of an NCAA Tournament berth. But the way the race is tightening, USU’s goal is still to win the conference.

Smith isn’t worrying about the attention going to their heads.

“We don’t talk about it a lot,” he said. “It’s out there. Guys know every night out there, they’re playing for something, so that’s reality. We can’t worry about that.”

Smith has been doing it with a largely untested group. USU is one of the youngest and least experienced teams in the country. It began the season with only four players that averaged more than seven minutes per game last year.

“So it’s all new to them,” he said.

Smith isn’t the first coach in the country to shine in his first season, but he has taken a 17-17 team (8-10 conference) and put it in position to join the March Madness. No one in USU history has started faster than Smith’s current .778 win percentage. Not Morrill (.536), Larry Eustachy (.519), Dutch Belnap (.615), Rod Tueller (.667) or even Ladell Andersen (.759).

Despite the new blend of players this year in Logan, the support base has been around for decades. One of Smith’s prime goals when he arrived was to reignite The Hurd, USU’s bodacious student section that stirred him to envy when he coached at other schools.

“You could feel the electricity through the TV screen,” he said.

“The enthusiasm they bring is infectious. It gives energy, and energy is contagious, right?”

He should know.

Smith could talk a koala out of its tree.

The likeliest worry Aggie fans will have is keeping Smith around long term. But you never know. Morrill stayed 17 years. Smith says he adores Logan, where winters are milder than his previous stops in the Dakotas.

“Feels like Hawaii compared to what we’re used to,” he said.

3 comments on this story

Although a quick start isn’t everything, it’s a big thing. Smith has done this with just two seniors, which means he can expect his top three scorers and his leading rebounder back next year. The Aggies lead the Mountain West in defensive field goal percentage and are the only team in the conference to rank in the top three in field goal, free throw and 3-point percentage. USU also leads the conference in rebounding offense and defense.

Balance, enthusiasm and toughness were traits Smith promised when hired.

“We’re gonna be aggressive dudes,” Smith said last March.

Takes one to know one.