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The Other Top 25 preseason rankings: No. 19 Utah State Aggies

The Aggies are once again expected to be among the Mountain West’s best.

NCAA Basketball: Mountain West Conference Tournament- Utah State vs San Diego State Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

2019-2020 Record: 26-8 (12-6 Mountain West), Mountain West Tournament Champions
Key Returning Players: Neemias Queta (C, Jr.), Brock Miller (G, Jr.), Justin Bean (F, Jr.), Alphonso Anderson (F, Sr.), Sean Bairstow (F, So.)
Key Losses: Sam Merrill, Abel Porter, Diogo Brito
Key Newcomers: Marco Anthony (G, Jr., Virginia), Szymon Zapala (C, Fr., Poland), Max Shulga (G, Fr., Ukraine)

Before COVID-19 shut down the college basketball season and most of the United States, Sam Merrill and the Aggies delivered us what would ultimately become the marquee moment of March.

Although Utah State didn’t get to see its second straight NCAA Tournament bid come to fruition, it was another feather in the cap for Craig Smith’s program. In his two seasons in Logan, Utah, Smith has tallied a 54-15 (.783) overall record and picked up both Mountain West Tournament titles in the process.

Despite the loss of Merrill, the Aggies return a solid core that will once again be among the best in the Mountain West. In KenPom’s preseason rankings, they sit at a nice spot at No. 69, and the Blue Ribbon Yearbook predicts Utah State to finish second to San Diego State in the Mountain West.

Contention for the league title and NCAA Tournament bids has become the standard for Craig Smith, and this upcoming season should continue that trend.

Key Non-Conference Games

At the time of writing (Nov. 9), Utah State had not released its non-conference schedule. To say that the scheduling situation is college basketball is fluid would be an understatement, and games that may be on the docket now might not end up actually happening.

Jon Rothstein has reported that the Aggies will participate in the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic MTE in South Dakota, which features a strong field that should provide multiple chances at quality opponents.

According to D1 Docket’s (who does great work and should be an automatic follow) database, the Aggies are also slated to face Mississippi State on December 13. Potential matchups against BYU, UC Irvine and Saint Mary’s are other spots to keep an eye on as the final schedule is formed.

Three things to watch:

Can Neemias Queta be The Guy?

Through two seasons in Logan, Neemias Queta has been one of the most imposing centers west of the Mississippi. His prowess on both ends of the floor has not gone unnoticed as Queta was named to the preseason watchlist for the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar award.

Queta is coming off of a sophomore season in which he averaged 13 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game while improving his field goal and free throw percentages. Few in college basketball have Queta’s ability to dominate the paint like he can, and he’s continued to show flashes of a developing offensive repertoire.

The big question is whether he’s capable of taking that next step. Queta has flirted with making the leap to the NBA, and a big junior season could vault him up draft boards. Craig Smith told Blue Ribbon that he’s expecting big things out of his junior center this year:

“He was one of those guys that was here the whole time in the summer working hard on his game and getting in the gym. He’s really worked hard on being bigger, faster, and stronger,” Smith said. “He’s added a great amount of strength and improved his touch around the basket with both hands. The way he’s moving … it’s never been a weakness, but he’s moving at a much better level. I love his mindset. We’re expecting him to have a fantastic season.”

Here are a few aspects of his game to keep an eye on:

  • Can he cut down on turnovers? He led the Aggies with 3.1 turnovers per game and turned it over on 26.5% of his possessions.
  • Does he continue to expand his range? Per hoop-math, 32.9% of his shots were classified as 2-point jump shots, and he made 49.1% of such shots.
  • Can he maintain his efficiency with an increased workload? Without Sam Merrill, there’s reason to believe that Queta’s usage rate will increase.

Who takes over as the lead guard?

Losing Merrill to graduation is obviously a huge blow, but not unexpected. However, Abel Porter’s decision to transfer to Ohio State (Porter recently suffered an undisclosed career-ending injury) left a huge void in the Aggies’ backcourt.

A lot of the weight will probably fall on the shoulders of Brock Miller. Miller has primarily operated as a secondary option in the backcourt alongside Merrill, but as one of the only guards on the roster with college basketball experience he’ll be called upon to provide a veteran presence while the young core gets its feet wet.

If there’s a clear Achilles heel for the Aggies, it’s the uncertainty in the backcourt. It could ultimately be trial by fire for Miller and a bevy of freshmen guards, which could result in a bumpy start to the season.

Who hits shots?

Utah State’s roster construction skews towards the frontcourt. As talented as the forwards and centers on the roster are, there’s reason for concern that things might get a little bit crowded in the paint, especially when you take into account the apparent lack of shooting on the roster.

Last season the Aggies shot 32.9% from deep, which ranked 194th in the country. Not terrible, but that certainly doesn’t scare opposing defenses. If you exclude Sam Merrill’s 89-217 (41.0%) showing, however, you’re left with a roster that barely cracks 30%.

So who’s going to step up and hit shots? Queta only took one 3-point attempt last year. Justin Bean was just 8 of 29. Miller let it fly frequently, but only hit 30.5% of his 200 attempts, and his percentage has declined each year as his volume goes up.

A wise man once said that you have to hit shots to win. As the season approaches, perimeter shooting remains one of the biggest question marks for the Aggies and could be the difference between competing for another league title or falling back into the middle of the pack.

X-Factor

Marco Anthony

He might have played sparingly during his two seasons at Virginia, but Anthony still gained valuable experience as a member of the Cavaliers’ national championship team. After redshirting as a transfer last year, the 6-5, 225-pound junior could be called upon to fill in wherever needed for an Aggies team that desperately needs perimeter help.

Although he’s listed as a guard, Anthony’s size and athleticism on the wing should allow him to slide up and down the lineup as needed. If the lefty can prove to be a reliable shooter, his presence on the floor would provide valuable spacing for Queta to operate inside. More than anything, Smith will look to Anthony to provide a veteran presence for a backcourt will need it.