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Jeff Hunter
Utah State guard Diogo Brito takes in the scene from near midcourt at the Spectrum during the final moments of the Aggies' upset of No. 12 Nevada on March 2 in Logan.

LOGAN — While Utah State guard Diogo Brito has excelled in his role as the Aggies’ sixth man this season, it turns out that the junior’s most critical position might actually be as a father figure to a 6-foot-11, 240-pound man.

“He knows everything; he knows a lot of things around here,” USU freshman center Neemias Queta said of Brito at a postgame press conference last week at the Mountain West Men’s Basketball Tournament in Las Vegas.

“He teaches me a lot of things around here. He’s basically my dad. He takes care of me. ... And I really love him.”

The father-and-giant-son connection between Queta and Brito started with phone calls last summer between northern Utah and southwestern Europe. New Utah State head coach Craig Smith and his staff were trying to secure the services of the raw but extremely talented big man from Barreiro, Portugal, and were fortunate to have an ace up their sleeve in Brito.

A native of Povoa de Varzim, Portugal, a coastal city about three and a half hours north of Queta’s hometown, Brito had just completed his second season with the Aggies and loved the idea of having a fellow countryman on his team.

“I left Portugal about four years ago, before (Queta) was a real prospect because he was still young,” Brito says. “But while I was here, I definitely started hearing about Neemias Queta because he was playing for one of the top teams in Portugal. Then he just exploded and made a name for himself last summer at the U20 European Championships.”

“It was about that same time when Coach Petey (Eric Peterson) asked me if I knew this guy, and that he was trying to bring him here. So, I got on the phone and tried to tell him what Utah State was like.”

Queta ended up arriving in Logan just in time for the second day of fall classes at Utah State University. And having never been to the United States, there were a lot of challenges along the way, with Brito playing a huge role in getting the 2018-19 Mountain West Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year acclimated to life in Cache Valley.

Hence, Queta’s reference to Brito as “basically my dad.”

“I’ve tried to help Neemie as much as I can, with whatever he needs,” Brito says. “Like I showed him some restaurants in Logan that might remind him a little more of home. He loved Mo’ Bettahs when I took him because the rice and chicken isn’t very different from what we eat.”

In turn, Queta showed up at Brito’s doorstep with a package from his mother that included cookies and candy from Portugal.

“We sat down and shared Portuguese treats together, which brought back a lot of good memories of home,” Brito says with a big smile. “Having a Portuguese teammate is something I’ve definitely enjoyed.”

As Utah State (28-6) prepares to face Washington (26-8) Friday in the NCAA Tournament in Columbus, Ohio, the Aggies are counting on that Portuguese connection to continue to pay big dividends — on the court and off. But while Queta’s emergence this season came as a surprise to most, Brito has taken a much different path to becoming Utah State’s third leading scorer (8.3 ppg) and rebounder (4.3 rpg) in 2018-19.

After playing his senior year at Mountain Mission School in Virginia, Brito says he was “very low, low recruited” and was looking hard at going to Cal Poly before getting a call from former USU head coach Tim Duryea. At the time, David Marek was the Aggies’ director of player development, and the Czech Republic native, who is now an assistant on Randy Rahe’s staff at Weber State, had heard of Brito through his European connections.

“So, I visited Utah State, and I committed right away, for sure,” says Brito, who was pleased to find that Aggie center Quinn Taylor speaks Portuguese after serving a mission to Brazil for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Quinn is my roommate on the road this year, and I bet we talk half the time in the English and half the time in Portuguese,” Brito notes. “He speaks a little bit different type of Portuguese, but he says he understands Neemie better than me because I’m from the north and Neemie’s from the south.”

Brito wasn’t much of a factor as a freshman at USU in 2016-17, averaging just six minutes and less than a point per game. But last season, he ended up making 23 starts and shot 46 percent from the field while averaging six points a night.

While Brito hoped to continue as a starter this year, he knew he would have to prove himself all over again when Smith was hired to replace Duryea. Conversely, he was disappointed to come off the bench in USU’s season opener at Montana State, but as the season wore on, his attitude begin to change and he insists he’s fine with not starting even one game this year.

“Coach Smith usually puts me in early in the game, and I try to bring as much energy off of the bench as possible,” Brito says. “I’ve just tried to embrace that sixth-man role, or whatever you want to call it. And I’ve really enjoyed it — way more than I thought I would.”

And why not? Since losing to Fresno State on Jan. 9, the Aggies have won 17 of 18 games with Brito logging 26.8 minutes and 10.9 points per contest. The 6-5 guard’s most critical performance of the season came in USU’s first game at the Mountain West tournament as the Aggies struggled to solve New Mexico’s full-court press.

After turning the ball over five times in the first half without scoring a point, Brito rebounded mightily in the second half, putting up 14 points without a turnover. A loss in that game quite likely would have kept the Aggies from making the NCAA Tournament, but by grinding out a 91-83 victory, USU went on to win the tourney and the conference’s automatic berth in the Big Dance.

Brito, who also serves a de facto backup point guard along with standout shooting guard Sam Merrill, says Smith told him he just needed to slow things down while still attacking New Mexico’s press.

“He told me, ‘You’re such a good player when you slow down and play on two feet,’” Brito recalls. “They were speeding us up, so we needed to just be composed enough to slow it down, find the gaps they were giving us and do the right play.”

Brito’s turnaround, which included a couple of huge 3-pointers and a pair of big steals, certainly didn’t come as a surprise to his teammates.

“Diogo has been big for us all year, but especially during this stretch run,” Merrill declared after the quarterfinal victory. “We have all the confidence in the world in him, and he was awesome and huge for us in the second half.”

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Now Brito and the Aggies are heading to the NCAA Tournament, something Brito says he first remembers watching as a kid when Blake Griffin and the Oklahoma Sooners were making a lot of noise back in 2009. He says he’s had to explain to a lot of people back in Portugal just how the Selection Show and the Big Dance works, but that there’s a lot of interest in his home country this year, primarily because of the success he and Queta have had, along with that of Colgate guard Francisco Amiel, who, coincidentally, will also be in Columbus this weekend when the Raiders take on Tennessee.

“We’re the only Portuguese players in college basketball right now, and it’s taking measures that I never thought it would,” Brito says of the trio’s popularity in Europe. “It’s way bigger than I thought it would ever be because we’re, like, literally the idols of a lot of kids back in Portugal.”