LOGAN – March Madness is already in full swing, big upsets have taken place with unexpected teams advancing. For the fifth year in a row, the Utah State basketball team isn’t a part of it, but the players are optimistic and looking forward.
Entering the conference tournament, Utah State had a 15-14 overall record. The players and coaches knew the only possible way into the dance was by winning the conference tournament, but after a last-minute loss filled with emotion, hard fouls and questionable calls advanced top-seeded San Diego State to the semifinals, head coach Tim Duryea’s team seemed more optimistic than discouraged, more determined than upset.
“I wouldn’t say we’re a bad team,” junior forward Jalen Moore said. “We were right there, every game. It’s heading in the right direction.”
It wasn’t that the loss was easier to take because the team expected to lose. According to the players, it was the opposite. They knew they played hard, close games. They see a bright future. Moore said every single player on the court and the bench for the final game thought they would win. Aztec head coach Steve Fisher noticed the same thing.
“We played them two years ago here and they wanted to go home,” he said. “This year they wanted to play.”
Since the 19-point loss in Laramie on February 6th, the team finished the regular season 4-3. Each loss was narrow, and two came against eventual conference tournament champion Fresno State. Then, in the opening round of the conference tournament, the Aggies improvement showed during a 88-70 win over Wyoming. Duryea didn’t just say his team was different since the first Wyoming game, he said his team was playing better than anyone in the league except Fresno State. If he does things right, he said he thinks he can build off that momentum next year.
“Every night out I saw a team that was playing well, that was playing together,” he said. “We had a lot of confidence. We had a lot of confidence going into (the Wyoming game) yesterday. We had a lot of confidence going into (the San Diego State game) today. That’s a really confident group.”
But it won’t be the exact same team coming back, four seniors will be leaving. Trace Cureton, Darius Perkins, Chris Smith and Grayson Moore have each played their final games in Aggie blue. Perkins started at the point guard during the vast majority of his two years in Logan, but Shane Rector, who started in his place during the Mountain West tournament and picked up a season-high 24-point performance against Wyoming, should be back for his senior season. Smith won’t be easy to replace, but new recruit Koby McEwen might be able to contribute immediately. McEwen, an ESPN top-100 recruit, will join the team as a guard.
“We’ve got some good guys coming in,” Moore said. “We’ve got some good coaches and I feel like every year we’re getting better in the Mountain West compared to the first year.”
“I think we’re going in the right direction,” he said. “We’ve fought through a lot of adversity this year, the injuries and people leaving, but we stuck it out and never gave up on each other. Coaches never gave up on us and that just shows the character of this team. So we just are looking forward, just got to move on and hope for a better year next year.”
Duryea said there is still some recruiting left to do in the spring and is looking for some size to add to the roster. He said he wants to “play with a bigger group.”
“I think there’s probably some different things I’ll stress as a team and try to get better at,” he said. “And hopefully I’m a better coach today than I was the day we started this year, and hopefully I’ll be better next year, that’s a part of the process. You always want your players to get better from year to year, and I think, as a coach you’ve got to try and get better from year to year. Next year’s group will be a little bit different from this year’s and it is our job as coaches to accentuate those strengths.”