<strong>LOGAN—</strong> Despite coming off its worst season in more than a decade, expectations were once again high for the Utah State men’s basketball team.
Picked to finish atop the Western Athletic Conference by the media, and nearly picked to finish at the top by the coaches, the Aggie faithful had a full glass of blue Kool-Aid as they watched USU easily dispatch of two exhibition opponents.
The perpetual exuberance for USU basketball is always abundant in Cache Valley, and this year’s excitement isn’t really shocking. After all, USU does have the preseason WAC Player of the Year in junior guard Preston Medlin. The Aggies also have the school’s all-time winningest coach stalking the sideline in Stew Morrill. Largely lacking last season, size is suddenly plentiful on the Aggies’ roster.
Then reality hit.
Utah State opened the season with an ugly 56-48 win over visiting Idaho State. In that game, USU only managed to get up 47 shot attempts, struggled to get into its offense, and turned the ball over an astounding 17 times.
“If we were on the road somewhere, they would have certainly chanted overrated, because that’s what we’ve got to be right now,” Morrill said following the win. “We’ll get better though, but we’re a long ways from being a very good team.”
For all of the excitement about the Aggies’ size, USU’s post players were less than dominant against the much smaller Bengals. Jordan Stone had a couple bright spots in recording five points and three rebounds in 11 minutes of action, but preseason WAC Newcomer of the Year Jarred Shaw – reminiscent of Kyisean Reed last year – struggled with the physicality of the game for most of night.
“He hasn’t played for forever, and he’s got to find himself,” Morrill said. “He’s making some mistakes out there, and he’s definitely not being physical enough. He’s long and he’s skilled, and he’ll get better.”
Some of USU’s struggles can certainly be attributed to Idaho State. The Bengals played a 1-1-3 zone defense that had the distinct purpose of slowing the game down – a strategy the Aggies have used in games when they’re overmatched.
However, the Aggies’ biggest problem last Saturday night was themselves. They struggled with execution, failed to knockdown shots, and never really found any sort of rhythm. Some of that is to be expected in a season-opener with a new team, but USU will need to improve quickly with Saint Mary’s visiting The Spectrum Thursday.
“It was pretty sloppy I thought on both ends for us and for them. It was a game that we got a win out of it and we’re going to work this week and get ready for the Saint Mary’s game,” Medlin said. “We can’t have that many turnovers. Obviously, you know that you’re not going to win a lot of games doing that. We’re going to work on that, and try to keep rebounding hard like we did.”
Not surprisingly, Medlin led the Aggies in scoring. What was surprising was that he only tallied 14 points on 5-of-7 shooting. He was the only USU player to score in double figures. Certainly Medlin expects to have more weapons around him this season, but when those weapons don’t step up, he needs to be able to carry the team like he did at times last season.
“ They’ve all got to believe they can play. That’s one of the things you have to learn at the Division I level, you’ve got to figure out you can play,” Morrill said. “It drives me crazy when guys are unconfident. I mean, it’s part of the deal, but not a part of the deal I like. You’ve got to be tough enough to think you can play. That’s going to be big for us.”
There is no doubt this team didn’t play its best basketball of the season against the Bengals last Saturday, and there is no doubt there are much better days ahead. However, how quickly the Aggies – especially the new ones – can adjust to the speed and physicality of the Division I game, will determine if this season and those players will live up to expectations.
They will get their first true test Thursday night.
“We’ll take it, we’ll learn from it, we’ll get better,” Morrill said of the Idaho State game. “We better get better in a hurry. Saint Mary’s Thursday is a whole different type of challenge – a top-40 team for sure.”