COLUMBUS, Ohio — Several of the questions posed by members of the Ohio media during Thursday’s press conference at Nationwide Arena in Columbus revolved around Utah State’s international athletes and the seven players who have served missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I think it’s been incredibly helpful as far as developing the chemistry,” USU junior guard Sam Merrill noted. “I think because we all come from so many different backgrounds, it keeps us away from developing any type of clique or something like that. When we’re hanging around, it’s everybody together, not groups of three or four.
“And fortunately, we have multiple of our American-born players that are bilingual. That’s helped.”
Neemias Queta (Portugal), Diogo Brito (Portugal), Roche Grootfaam (Suriname) and Ben Fakira (Australia) all hail originally from other nations, while Quinn Taylor (Brazil), Sam Merrill (Nicaragua), Crew Ainge (Louisiana, Spanish-speaking), Abel Porter (Russia), Justin Bean (Nevada), Brock Miller (Argentina) and Alex Johnson (California) have all served missions.
“Certainly it’s been fantastic because all those guys are just incredible people, first and foremost,” Smith said of his contingent of RMs. “Obviously, generally speaking, they’re a couple of years older, and there’s a sense of maturity. And their communication skills are tremendous.”
The only potential downside, Smith noted with a laugh, is that many of those former missionaries are now married, “And they don’t want to go to our training table to eat because they want to go home and eat with their wife. So, that’s different.”
GO LONG: The media had 15 minutes to speak with each team’s head coaches on Thursday. And while questions for Washington head coach Mike Hopkins dried up with about five minutes remaining, Smith was lucky to get through five questions despite going about a minute over his allotted time.
Always amicable and energetic, Smith actually had to cut himself off after gushing on and on about the play and character of USU’s leading scorer, Merrill.
“Guys love playing with him,” Smith said of the former Bountiful Brave. “... And it all starts when you have a guy like that that’s so unselfish.
“And when your best player is your hardest worker, everybody falls in line,” Smith added. “And I could talk for another 10 minutes about Sam if you want. But that about sums it up.”
Smith later concluded his portion of the press conference by talking about Washington senior guard David Crisp. Or more precisely, Crisp’s mother.1 comment on this story
“I actually did a home visit with him and his parents when I was an assistant at Nebraska,” Smith proclaimed. “His mom can really cook. It was incredible food. It was like, ‘Wow!’”
Press conference moderator Mark Patrick then cut Smith off, and said with a mischievous grin while eyeing USU’s head coach: “Thank you very much. We had hoped for more enthusiasm...”
“Hey, we can keep going,” Smith retorted. “I’ve got all kinds of time. We don’t play until 6 p.m. tomorrow.”