USU basketball hoping late-season turnaround continues into new season

LOGAN – The Aggie basketball team had its ups and downs last year. Even though the final record was an underwhelming 16-15, the team looked and played confidently near season’s end. Head coach Tim Duryea said he felt his guys could have beat any team in the conference during those last few weeks of the season.

The team returns just four players that had playing time last year, but seniors Jalen Moore and Shane Rector hope they can continue right where they left off.

The contrast from start to finish last season was obvious. An 18-point loss to New Mexico in January became an eight-point win against the same Lobo team in February. The Aggies lost to Wyoming by 19 points during the regular season, but picked up an 18-point win over the Cowboys in the conference tournament.

By the time Utah State met the Mountain West regular season champion San Diego State team in the conference tournament, the Aggies looked like contenders. USU led most of the game, but SDSU pulled ahead in the final minutes for the win.

The Aggies’ season was over, but there wasn’t the expected sense of defeat. There was optimism. Forward Jalen Moore, who was a junior at the time, wasn’t dwelling on the loss. He was looking past the offseason and into the future.

“I wouldn’t say we’re a bad team,” he said. “We were right there, every game. It’s heading in the right direction.”

Duryea credited the season’s turnaround to an emphasis on defense and rebounding. Once the team improved in those areas, the wins started to come more easily. The Aggies are picked to finish sixth in the conference, but if the Aggies can somehow enter this season with last season’s momentum, that finish could be much higher.

Duryea thinks last season’s strong finish was due to two key things – defense and rebounding. Those are the things he said he has stressed so far in practice.

“I wish we could have got to that point earlier in the year,” he said. “But the guys coming back can tell the new guys that the whole reason for the difference was defense and rebounding.”

In addition to Moore and Rector, Quinn Taylor and Julion Pearre are the only other returners with playing time. Alex Dargenton is also back after using his redshirt last season. Duryea said Pearre has been a “streaky shooter” in the past, but he hasn’t noticed any inconsistency in shot through practices so far. Taylor is the only returning big on the team.

“(Pearre) makes threes, drives it well to score, drives it to pass on the other side of the floor, gives it great effort,” Duryea said. “A total program kid.”

It will be up those four returners and a redshirt Alex Dargenton to lead the 10 newcomers and try to carry on that momentum from the last five or six games of the 15-16 season, to emphasize playing tough D and getting boards.

“The offense is going to come,” Rector said. “But the defense is really where you need to pay attention.”

With so much youth on this team, a drop in experience is expected, but that doesn’t always translate to a drop in talent.

One of the most anticipated players to join the USU basketball team in years is freshman guard Koby McEwen. The 6-foot-4 Toronto native averaged 18.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists during his senior season with the Wasatch Academy Tigers in Mount Pleasant, Utah. He was recently named the Mountain West Preseason Co-Freshman of the Year. Duryea called him “probably the most valued freshman that has ever come into Utah State.”

“He’s a hyper-competitive guy,” he said. “He loves to play; he’s got a high motor.”

McEwen isn’t the only freshman that Aggie fans are looking forward to. Klay Stall and Daron Henson are two freshmen that could make an early impact. Stall is a 6-9 forward from Chandler, Arizona who is coming off an injury, but has put up points and made plays in a couple of early scrimmages.

William Middlebrooks coached Henson at Cathedral High. He said Henson is a guy who “can really shoot the ball or put it on the ground and make plays to the rack.”

“He’s a tremendous prospect,” Middlebrooks said. “He’s a pro prospect. I mean, a 6-8 guy that can shoot as effectively and efficiently as he can the 3. That’s always attractive in having a long-term potential future. Now that’s contingent on his continued development, but if he develops as he should and goes through progression, he has a chance to make it all the way.”

Other newcomers include a pair of junior college transfers, Norbert Janicek and Ngor Barnaba. Janicek, a 6-foot-11 sophomore forward from Slovakia was a standout at Snow College a year ago.

“He’s going to be a good player,” Duryea said. “He has really made some strides in the past week in terms of understanding our system.”

Barnaba, a 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward transferring from Missouri State-West Plains, is like Henson – a tall guy that can shoot the 3.

“I’ll have to adjust to (the talent level), just try to let it come to me and adjust to the game,” Barnaba said after his commitment to USU in May. “It’s really different from JUCO basketball. The Mountain West is a great conference, it’s going to take a little bit, but I can adjust fast, I’m a quick learner.”

The basketball team, with so much youth and talent, appears to have a bright future, but for Moore and Rector, the team’s two returning seniors, this year is it. This is the year to put it all on the line, and it might be year the team’s makeup will finally allow him to do that. With all the new bigs on the team, Moore will finally be able to play his preferred position. He said he has had to play under the basket more than he has liked during his time at USU, but will get to play the three this year.

“I get to come off ball screens,” he said. “Be a playmaker, make things happen for myself and the team and I think that is where I excel in the game of basketball.”

The first preseason game comes November 4 against Southern Virginia at home, but the season officially begins November 11 against UC Irvine on the road. It’s a team that beat the Aggies in the Spectrum a year ago. If the Aggie team continues what they did at the end of last season, they’ll flip that loss into a win too.

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