No one quite knew what to expect with summer workouts began under new coach Craig Smith, but slowly there came a realization that Utah State was better than most realized.
Certainly better than the ninth-place finish forecast by the media in the Mountain West poll.
But even the Aggies weren’t quite sure if the progress they saw in practices was real or would soon be exposed. Then in the season’s fifth game, they went to Las Vegas and beat Saint Mary’s by 17 points at T-Mobile Arena.
“We came out smoking, and I think that was a big confidence builder for us,” Utah State guard Sam Merrill said. “It helped us to understand that we really can get to where we want to go, which is to the top of this league and to the NCAA Tournament. From then on, we’ve had a few slip-ups, but we’ve continued to play the right way.”
Now UNLV (11-9, 5-3 MW) has the challenge of facing a Utah State team (16-5, 6-2) that has won five consecutive games. The teams meet at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in Logan, Utah. AT&T SportsNet will televise the game.
Smith took over Utah State after going 79-55 the previous four seasons at South Dakota, making the postseason his final two years.
His emphasis on defense and ball distribution at South Dakota carried over to Utah State. The Aggies are second in the Mountain West in scoring defense (65.9-point average) and first in defensive field goal percentage (38.3), rebounding margin (10.0 average) and assists (17.3).
“Our teams in South Dakota the last two years were the No. 1 defensive team in the league,” Smith said. “When people hear that, a lot of times people think, ‘Oh, you must really slow it down and grind it out.’ That’s not it. Our defensive field goal percentage has been really, really good, and we want to play up tempo. We’ve scored over 100 three times this year, so we want to run every chance we get.”
Utah State’s 79.7 scoring average is second in the conference only to No. 8 UNR’s 80.9.
Pretty impressive, especially considering the Aggies entered the season with only four players who averaged more than seven minutes per game. Six players who suit up are freshmen.
“We knew we had some talent,” Smith said. “At the same time, you never know how it’s all going to jell. How is it all going to transition? What’s your teamwork going to be like? Not only are our guys learning a new language, a new style, a new vocabulary, a new system, they’ve also got to do all that while trying to learn how to play with each other. So you’ve got to give our guys a ton of credit for buying in and working hard and probably figuring it out a little bit sooner than most anticipated.”
Merrill said he was impressed with Smith from the first team and individual meetings and was convinced this was the right coach.
He also knew the Aggies would be a mystery to other teams, especially early in the season.
“I don’t anyone expected us to be hardly any good, much less this good,” Merrill said. “Teams obviously understand a little better how we play, but it’s a lot different watching film as opposed to stepping on the court with us.”