We continue our WAC men’s basketball preview with a look at #2 Utah State.
Team: #2 Utah State
Coach: Stew Morrill, 12th season, 267-91
Last year’s record: 30-5 (14-2 WAC, 1st)
Key newcomers: F Nate Bendall
Why they’re here: They’re the Utah State Aggies. Stew Morrill is their fiery coach. The Spectrum is their home court. The Refraction is their irreverent voice. No matter who they lose, Utah State always finds a way to win a ridiculous number of games and contend for the conference crown. Betting against them is a sucker’s game and we’re seldom, if ever, willing to play it.
That said, if there’s a year that the WAC’s undisputed juggernaut might — just might — be vanquished, this is it. Star forward and conference Player of the Year Gary Wilkinson has been lost to graduation and there’s no clear replacement for his production. He not only leaves a gaping hole in the Aggies’ frontcourt, his absence means opposing defenses won’t have to spend the whole game keying off him. Juco standout Nate Bendall will be stepping into Wilkinson’s role, but his are mighty big shoes to fill. Bendall will have to prove on the court that he’s a worthy successor.
The rest of the Aggie starting lineup, though, is made up of unquestionable talent. Jared Quayle is one of the conference’s best point guards, Tyler Newbold is Mr. Clutch and Tai Wesley is a consistent paint performer. Bench help will come from a more experienced Jaxon Myaer, who, after Stavon Williams’ departure, is the Aggies’ leading returning reserve. The bottom line for Logan’s Heroes — a track record of success that can’t be ignored. The coaching is too good, the players too talented, the Spectrum too intimidating.
Why they could finish higher: If Morrill is able to get a couple of his newcomers to overachieve (and Morrill always gets players to overachieve), we might quickly forget all about Wilkinson. Even if that doesn’t happen, the Utags will be relentless and fearless competitors with a homecourt advantage unlike anywhere else in the conference. Nothing less than perfection will do for any team that wishes to defeat Utah State. One tiny slip, any opening and the Aggies will push their way through, say thank you and win the conference for the second consecutive year.
Why they could finish lower: We’re hard-pressed to think of any plausible reason Utah State will drop below second in the conference, barring injury troubles. There’s too much proven talent and the track record of success is too strong.
Most Valuable Player: Jared Quayle (13.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.7 apg) — In a conference full of quality and talent at the 1-spot, playing there is no easy task. But when he stepped into the point guard role for Utah State midway through last season, Quayle showed star qualities all over the court. He shot 46.5 percent from the floor and came very near a triple-double in several games, dishing, boarding and shooting with aplomb. Quayle should only get better this year, and as the Aggies’ only senior, he’ll be doing everything he can to go out as a champion.
Most Important Player: Tai Wesley (12.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.7 apg) — With Wilkinson’s departure, it’s going to be on Wesley to step up his game and replace at least some of his inside production. Not that 12 points and 6 boards is a bad start for a power forward, mind you. But without Wilkinson there to clean up the glass and with Bendall perhaps still learning the ropes of Division I, there’s an opportunity for Wesley to give the Aggies a double-double every night.
Non-conference degree of difficulty: 4 — In the past, Utah State has been criticized for weak scheduling, and it seems as if those cries have been heard. A three-game roadtrip to open the season — at Weber State, Utah and the CAA’s Northeastern — is no cakewalk, and while the quality slumps off a bit in December, they’ll still face Brigham Young, St. Mary’s and a Morehead State squad that went to the NCAA Tournament last year. The Aggies get dinged a little for playing so much at home — but with their advantage, who can blame them?
Fun fact: If you play the Aggies in Logan, you can pretty much chalk up an L. Utah State’s record at home over the past 15 seasons stands at an absurd 209-22. They have not lost a game in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum since March 3, 2007 — the second-longest streak in the NCAA, trailing only Kansas.
Predicted record: 24-6 (12-4 WAC)