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Returning talent should keep Utah State in the Mountain West race

Sam Merrill is gone, but Craig Smith has more than enough to continue the Aggies’ momentum.

NCAA Basketball: Utah State at San Diego State Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

When Neemias Queta announced in late April that he would return to Utah State, teammate Justin Bean made it clear that the Aggies were not going to lower expectations for next season.

“AGGIE NATION WILL BE READY LET’S GET IT BROTHER,” Bean tweeted in response to Queta.

Utah State’s star player Sam Merrill has graduated and so has sixth man Diogo Brito. The team is also losing their starting point guard with Abel Porter transferring to Ohio State.

So it’s natural that a popular question regarding the Aggies is how to replace that outgoing talent. It’s a valid one, but the focus should also be on the talent the Aggies do get to keep. The roster will include a handful of returners who have already started making a name for themselves.

Merrill went from averaging 9.4 and 16.3 points per game during his freshman and sophomore seasons, respectively, to 20.9 and 19.7 points during his junior and senior years. Now it’s time to keep an eye on Queta, who could be in line for that same type of jump.

His desire to leave for the NBA has been obvious since his freshman year, but the Aggies get a valuable opportunity to keep him for his junior season. The 7-0 center from Portugal was named the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year and the Freshman of the Year during the 2018-19 season. He also made it into the second-team All-Mountain West and the Mountain West All-Tournament team. That year he started in all 35 games and averaged 11.8 points and 8.9 rebounds per game.

Queta suffered a knee injury last summer while playing for Portugal in a FIBA Under-20 tournament, which forced him to sit out at the beginning of the 2019-20 season. On Dec. 21 he suffered another injury during the first half of a game against the Florida Gators. He sat out until Jan. 4 when he returned against San Diego State, scoring 15 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. If fully healthy, Queta could have likely done better than the 13.0 points and 7.8 rebounds per game he registered throughout the season.

He led the conference with an average of 1.7 blocks when playing against other MW opponents, and his 122 total career blocks rank already fourth in school history. Queta’s performance during conference play earned him second-team All-Mountain West and convinced the media to name him conference Defensive Player of the Year. His contributions to Utah State’s latest MW trophy got him a spot in the all-tournament team.

Queta is undoubtedly an important player for the Aggies, but last year’s team showed they had the ability to adjust when necessary. They showed versatility by using seven different starting lineups during the regular season due to injuries and illnesses.

Kuba Karwowski became the go-to center when Queta wasn’t available. The 7-2 player from Poland recorded 15 blocks in 15 appearances. While he didn’t have many eye-catching stats (2.7 points, 3.2 rebounds and 0.7 assists per game), the team went 7-0 when he took over at center and joined the rest of the original starting lineup of Bean, Merrill, Porter and Brock Miller.

Utah State finished the season with a 26-8 overall record and a 12-6 conference record. Only two players, Porter and Bean, started in all 34 games. Bean’s experience and work ethic will be invaluable for this fall’s roster, but his teammates had already noticed his value last season.

After lifting the MW Championship trophy, Merrill and Queta had a lot of positive comments about Bean, a former walk-on, during the postgame press conference.

“I just feel that he just has a knack for knowing where the ball will fall, and he positions himself in the spots to get the rebound. He outworks everybody,” said Queta, who joined Bean in the MW Defensive team. “I feel that his juice never ends. He’s just constantly outworking everybody, and I just feel that he’s amazing at it.”

NCAA Basketball: Mountain West Conference Tournament- Utah State vs San Diego State
Justin Bean was a key part of another USU championship.
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Bean, who Merrill described as the “ultimate glue guy,” led his team in rebounds with 10.5 per game. The 6-7 forward also averaged 11.9 points per game, which helped him become the first Aggie to average a double-double in a season since Mike Santos during the 1976-77 season (18 PPG, 11.3 RPG).

Miller will be the third returning starter for the 2020-21 season. The 6-5 guard appeared in 34 games last season, 29 of those as a starter. He scored in double digits in 11 games, with a season-high of 27 points when the Aggies played Denver on Nov. 12.

A player that Aggie fans have been waiting to watch for a while is Marco Anthony, who sat out last season after transferring from Virginia due to NCAA rules. He played a total of 35 games with a Cavaliers roster that took the 2019 national title.

Alphonso Anderson adds some depth in the forward position. He appeared in all 34 games last season and showed off his value in more than just a couple of occasions.

The 6’6 forward was named to the Jamaica Classic all-tournament team thanks to an average of 21.5 points and 5.0 rebounds per game against LSU and North Texas. The LSU game saw his season-high of 24 points, which made him the latest Aggie coming off the bench to score 20 points or more in a game.

Anderson was certainly part of the reason why the Utah State bench proved efficient through the 2019-20 campaign. Utah State’s bench was shooting at 45.3% from the field, better than its opponents’ benches who were shooting at 37.9% during the regular season.

Head coach Craig Smith has only been with the Aggies for two seasons but both have been productive and seen a lot of success. The Aggies hold a 54-15 overall record with Smith, who joined the Aggies from South Dakota in 2018. He reached 50 wins faster than any other coach in Utah State history. His first season he achieved a 28-7 record, which was the highest for a first-year coach in program history.

Smith was ready to make his second NCAA Tournament appearance with the Aggies had the Big Dance not been canceled by the coronavirus pandemic. While he can’t count on another Merrill clutch three-pointer to guarantee a ticket to the tournament next season, he will still have a lot of returners who can help Utah State keep a spot as one of the better teams in the Mountain West.