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Utah State’s Rapid Rise

The Aggies are off to a hot start and we dive into why so many people got it wrong.

Brock Miller signals for a jump ball against Mississippi Valley State.
Eli Lucero/Herald Journal via AP

I spoke with Utah Statesman beat writer Jason Walker earlier in the week about the Aggies 10-3 start and the differences in the program under coach Craig Smith.

Q: What kind, if any, of culture change has been evident in the shift from Coach Duryea to Coach Smith? We’ve seen the increased involvement on Twitter and a seemingly more vocal presence on the sideline.

The biggest thing that jumps out to me in terms of difference between Duryea and Smith is the energy and focus on doing the little things right. Duryea had a slow-paced team and was trying to follow the trend of position-less basketball and attempting a ton of 3-point shots. Smith on the other hand is all about fast-paced basketball, hustling, rebounding, defense and getting the best shot possible, which is usually a layup. It’s not really that Duryea’s system was bad, I just think that Smith’s philosophy fits the Aggies much better when considering the talent level.

According to KenPom, in the three years under Duryea, the average tempo was 246th out of 353 Division I teams. This season, the Aggies are 46th.

Q: What do you think was the biggest misconception about the Aggies headed into the preseason, where everyone undervalued them?

I think everyone assumed that the Aggies’ lack of top-tier talent and athleticism would keep them down. Last year, they were a mediocre team that ended up losing its star guard in Koby McEwen days after the season ended. Without a high-level recruit or well-known transfer coming in, most people assumed it would be a rebuilding year with a new coach and greatly altered roster.

Q: Attendance has trended slightly up the past two seasons at the Spectrum, how has the strong start/renewed optimism affected the arena environment?

Sadly, the great start hasn’t raised the attendance level to what the university would like it to be so there hasn’t been a significant change in the environment. Although, this season, fans have yet to leave without having seen an Aggie victory. However, I think this season a lot of the attendance woes are due more to a lackluster home non-conference slate of games. When conference play rolls around, there should be more fans in the seats and a lot more noise in the arena.”

In their final non-conference home game against Eastern Oregon, the attendance was 7,056, the highest of the 2018-19 season so far.

Q: The Aggies are played outstanding defense this season so far, how quick and evident was the buy in from the players?

“The buy-in on defense was immediate for this team. Great defense has been an integral part of their identity. Everyone at every position is committed to playing defense and the results speak for themselves.”

According to KenPom, their two-point field goal defense is third in the country, behind only Old Dominion and Texas Tech at 36%.

Q: On the defensive side buy-in, how much/little has that commitment stemmed from Coach Smith not being afraid to use a deeper bench? How does that make it easier?

“Smith’s willingness to use his bench has an impact on the defensive commitment in a couple of ways. First, most of these kids haven’t been Division I players very long or at all and thus don’t have the conditioning of guys like Sam Merrill and Quinn Taylor. Knowing you’ll get a breather when you need it can help these guys. Also, Smith pays a lot of attention to lineups and combinations of players, so he’s making sure that with the varying skill sets and size and length of each player, he’s putting guys in when their particular skills fit the situation best.

Second, the players know that to get on the court more they have to buy in defensively. I asked Smith at the beginning of the season what his point guard rotation might look like with effectively three brand new guys at the position in John Knight III, Tauriawn Knight and Crew Ainge. One of the main things he said was the guy who can guard the other point guard the best will get more playing time. And if you look at who’s on the court, it’s more reflective of better defense than good offense. I believe the only reason Ainge is starting and even playing is that he is a pest on defense which makes him worth putting on the court.”

Q: What has the biggest storyline/thing to watch, other then Sam Merrill so far?

“Neemias Queta has been a revelation for Utah State. He changes the opposing team’s offense when he’s on the court with his length and athleticism. And on offense he’s developing a solid post game and is seemingly always in the right place for a dump off pass in the paint of an easy layup or dunk. There’s plenty of room for Queta to improve on both ends, but that might be the scariest thing about him because he’s already a force to be reckoned with.”

Q: What do you think the prognosis going forward is when conference play starts?

Starting out on the road at Nevada probably won’t end well, but the rest of January looks promising as only one of the seven teams other teams they’ll play in January currently has a winning record, Fresno State, and that game will be at home. It’s very possible that the Aggies could build up a seven or eight game win streak early in conference play.”

Utah State’s upcoming schedule
Utah State Athletics

Q: What would be the biggest key/thing they need to go right to beat Nevada in Reno?

“They would have to make every possession count on offense, Defensively, Utah State will be able to at least hang with every offense they’ll face this season, including Nevada’s. It’s on the offensive side that they’ll struggle the most. They don’t have much shooting outside of Merrill and Taylor and maybe Brock Miller if he’s having a good night, so that hurts them in terms of putting up points. The real killer for Utah State though is that they are prone to long stretches where they don’t score and couldn’t make a bucket if they were shooting in the ocean. If you look back at their losses you’ll see them, especially against BYU and Houston.”

The Aggies head to Reno and take on the Wolf Pack tonight at 9:00 pm MST/8:00 PST.

Jason Walker is the beat writer for men’s basketball for the Utah Statesman, the student newspaper at Utah State University.