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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 4 Utah State Aggies

The Aggies look to build on last season’s NCAA Tournament appearance.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Washington Huskies vs Utah State Aggies Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

2018-2019 Record: 28-7 (15-3 Mountain West), First Round of NCAA Tournament
Key Returning Players: Sam Merrill (G, Sr.), Neemias Queta (C, So.), Abel Porter (G, Jr.), Brock Miller (G, So.), Diogo Brito (G, Sr.), Justin Bean (F, So.)
Key Losses: Quinn Taylor, Dwayne Brown, Tauriawn Knight (JUCO)
Key Newcomers: Alphonso Anderson (F, Jr., North Idaho College), Kuba Karkowski (C, Jr., JUCO), Liam McChesney (F, Fr.), Sean Bairstow (F, Fr.)

Ninth place.

That’s where Utah State was projected to finish in the Mountain West’s preseason media poll last season. The Aggies entered the season ranked No. 168 in Kenpom’s preseason ratings. That, well, changed quickly.

Spearheaded by non-conference wins against Saint Mary’s, Utah Valley and UC Irvine, Utah State burst onto the scene with one of the best offenses west of the Mississippi. Behind Mountain West Player of the Year Sam Merrill and a talented freshman in Neemias Queta, Craig Smith’s first year in Logan was a roaring success. The Aggies won 10-straight games through the Mountain West tournament to close the season before falling to Washington in an 8/9 matchup. It was Utah State’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011 and its first since making the move from the WAC to the Mountain West.

This year, Utah State is going from the hunter to the hunted. The target is on their backs, and it’s a big one. The Aggies are the heavy favorite in the Mountain West, and the national buzz backed up that sentiment as they came in at No. 17 and No. 19 in the preseason AP and Coaches Polls, respectively.

Key Non-Conference Games

Craig Smith and Aggies were able to do what many breakout teams before them have struggled to do, and that’s put together a beefy non-conference schedule ripe with opportunities to build a resume. It’s a great balance of neutral court and road matchups against Quadrant I and II level teams as well as teams that they can pad their win and NET metrics against. Combined with the usual Mountain West slate, Utah State should be in good position on Selection Sunday.

Nov. 18 vs. UTSA
Nov. 22 vs. LSU (Jersey Mike’s Jamaica Classic, Jamaica)
Nov. 29 at Saint Mary’s
Dec. 14 vs. BYU (Beehive Classic, Salt Lake City)
Dec. 18 vs. South Florida (Battleground 2K19, Houston)
Dec. 21 vs. Florida (Orange Bowl Basketball Classic, Sunrise, Florida)

Three things to watch:

Sam Merrill’s star turn into a household name

The reigning Mountain West Player of the Year doesn’t have many holes in his game, and that’s why he’s popping on his fair share of preseason All-American and awards watch lists. As a junior, Merrill put up career highs in points per game (20.9), assists per game (4.2), and rebounds per game (3.9). He was a consistent scoring force, hitting double figures in all but one game and 20-plus points in 18 games. He was already touted as a great shooter and scorer, but Merrill displayed and improved ability as a playmaker and attacker. He nearly doubled his free throw rate (42%) where he was able to convert over 90 percent of his attempts at the stripe.

His continued development as a defender and playmaker will be the key areas to watch for Merrill. He’s going to get his buckets, and he’s going to get them in bunches. He’ll often be tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best player. With the national spotlight on the program and the preseason love that he’s received, Merrrill has the opportunity to etch his name as one of the best players in the country and one of the most well-rounded mid-major players in recent memory. It’s going to be a blast to watch.

Neemias Queta’s health

It was a bit of a surprise when the freshman big man spurned the NBA Draft to return to Logan. However, the offseason wasn’t all smooth sailing. In the midst of a great showing in the FIBA U-20 European Championships for his native country Portugal, Queta suffered a knee injury that was reported as a sprained left knee and kneecap dislocation.

Smith still isn’t sure just when Queta will be completely ready, as he said last week following a closed scrimmage.

“We have a game plan with Neemie, but we are going to sit down with the trainer this week and come together on some things,” Smith said. “His rehab is going great. He has done a really, really good job.”

If Queta isn’t ready for the season, the Aggies will have to turn to JuCo transfer Kuba Karkowski or Klay Stall to fill that void. It’s quite clear that without Queta, Utah State’s ceiling is much lower than with him. There are few players in the country that can dominate in the paint on both ends of the floor like he can.

Stability at the point

The point guard position was a tale of two seasons last year. For the first part of the season, Crew Ainge filled the starting role, although he only logged just under 13 minutes per game. Eighteen games into the season, Ainge was benched and replaced by Abel Porter and never saw the court again before ultimately transferring.

With Porter in the starting lineup, the Aggies hit their stride to close the season. In his 17 starts, the Aggies went 15-2 with the only losses coming on the road to San Diego State and in the NCAA Tournament to Washington. The former walk on turned out to be a great complement in the backcourt to Merrill, who was also capable of facilitating the offense when necessary. Entering this season, Porter is the guy. That clarity at one of the most important positions on the court will allow Smith to not stress about the best backcourt in the Mountain West.

X-Factor

Abel Porter

As stated above, the Aggies really came on strong once Porter was inserted into the lineup. As a starter, Porter provided another scoring option in the backcourt while also being able to set up his teammates. In his 17 starts, Porter logged averages of 11 points and 5.5 assists per game. Craig Smith told Blue Ribbon that inserting him into the starting lineup really allowed him to flourish.

“Once we put him into the lineup, our team really took off and his game took off,” Smith says. “He’s a good player, and a guy that eliminates losing. He doesn’t turn it over [1.9 assist-to-turnover ratio]. He makes great decisions. He’s a great defender. He understands how to get the ball to people so they can succeed.”

He’ll be to able to work as a secondary scoring option in the backcourt alongside Merrill or as a facilitator depending on the flow of the game. If Queta is out for a prolonged period of time, he could be asked to do more of the former. Nonetheless, Porter’s versatility at the point and the way that he meshes with the rest of the roster solidifies one of the best backcourts in the country.