Aggies optimistic about shot at success

Nov 8 2013 - 12:28am

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John Zsiray/The Associated Press
Utah State’s Preston Medlin (13) drives around Central Methodist’s Melvin Tillman (24) during a game Oct. 25 in Logan. Medlin is one of the Aggies’ top returning players for 2013-14.
John Zsiray/The Associated Press
Utah State’s Preston Medlin (13) drives around Central Methodist’s Melvin Tillman (24) during a game Oct. 25 in Logan. Medlin is one of the Aggies’ top returning players for 2013-14.

LOGAN -- The 2010-11 Utah State basketball team went 30-4, spent much of the season nationally ranked and reached the NCAA tournament. It relied on experience, having returned four starters and eight letter winners. It had 10 players with at least one year in the program.

The 2013-14 team also returns four starters, eight letter winners and nine players with at least one year in the program. A tenth has played at the Division I level.

Can this year's group, then, be as good as perhaps the most dominant Aggie team in school history?

"If we come locked in," said Jarred Shaw, "we can play with anybody in the country."

"The sky's the limit for this team," Danny Berger said. "We can shock a lot of people."

The Aggies will seek to do so in a new league that was arguably the best in the nation last year, where critics have their doubts about USU's ability to compete immediately. They will do so still with newcomers expected to play key roles immediately -- and with a reportedly shaky defense -- while seeking to recover from their first non-playoff season in 14 years.

USU is now in the Mountain West Conference, the top-ranked league in America after conference tournament play last season according to the Ratings Percentage Index. (A teams' RPI is based on its wins and losses and strength of schedule.) The MW lost 11 of its top 15 scorers from last season, but the Aggies were still selected fifth in the preseason media poll, behind New Mexico, UNLV, Boise State and San Diego State.

"It's a little odd," coach Stew Morrill said. "Are we thought of as not being as good as the top of the league and not as bad as the bottom of the league? Are we just considered average?"

After going 21-10 last season, USU remains one of five teams in the nation with 21-plus wins for 14 straight seasons. Given the program's success, Berger acknowledged that the ranking was low, saying that the Aggies' residence in the WAC may have been a factor. That league sent just one team to the Big Dance in five of the past six seasons.

"Just good seasons in the WAC doesn't mean we can be thrown into the top five of a power conference," Shaw said. "We need to prove we belong."

In eight years in the WAC, the Aggies won four regular-season titles, garnering four NCAA Tournament bids.

Headlining the returnees are 2011-12 All-WAC player Preston Medlin and 2012-13 All-WAC selections Shaw and Spencer Butterfield. Medlin ranks fifth all-time at USU in three-point shooting (41.3 percent) and has reportedly recovered from a fractured wrist in his shooting hand. Shaw led the team in scoring (14.2 points per game) in 2012-13 and ranked third in the league in rebounds (8.4). Butterfield was named the WAC player of the eeek twice in 13 chances after starters Medlin and Kyisean Reed suffered season-ending injuries. He spent the offseason recovering from hip surgery.

Others returners include seniors TeNale Roland and Sean Harris and juniors Jordan Stone, Ben Clifford and Berger. In addition to the returning starters, Roland (guard) and Clifford (forward) started seven and 16 games, respectively, after the injuries. Harris (forward) missed last season after suffering his second career ACL injury and is still recovering. Stone (center) averaged 11.8 minutes per game last season playing behind Shaw and Reed, who graduated. Berger (forward) started the first five games of last season before collapsing in practice on Dec. 4 from full cardiac arrest. He re-joined his teammates four days later.

Sophomore Kyle Davis and freshman Jalen Moore are two newcomers expected to contribute immediately. Davis (forward) played regularly for Southern Utah before embarking on an LDS Church mission. In the team's final scrimmage, Davis tallied 19 points and pulled in a game-high 15 rebounds for the only double-double of the game. Like Stone, Moore (wing) comes from Sky View High School.

Both said USU's move to the MW was a factor into their decision to play in Logan. Moore grew up attending most Aggie home games since his father Jimmy, a former USU player, had season tickets.

"I look forward to playing in the Spectrum with all my friends able to watch," Moore said. "Being close to everything and knowing it is a good program, I couldn't pass it up."

Other newcomers (all freshmen) include guards Viko Noma'aea, Jojo McGlaston and walk-on Terrell Young (Judge Memorial), forward James Croasdell and 7-foot center Carson Shanks.

Overall, seven of the Aggies' top eight scorers return.

"One of the things for our team will be 'OK, we've only got one basketball,' " Morrill said.

It's the other side of the floor that concerns the team. When asked about the team's greatest challenge, Shaw, Berger and Moore all cited the defense. The Aggies beat NAIA Central Methodist 108-88 in their Oct. 25 exhibition game before beating Adams State 86-55 a week later. Berger cited a lack of communication while Shaw said a variety of problems are apparent: sliding properly, getting enough help and knowing spots in schemes.

The Aggies did not participate in postseason play in the spring for the first time since 1999 -- Morrill's first season as USU's head coach -- after losing to Texas-Arlington in the first round of the WAC tournament.

Shaw said he wants to be among the MW's top three in order to make the NCAA tournament, which Medlin described as the team's "ultimate goal."

"Everyone is determined to get there," Moore said. "We will make it."

* SPECTRUM DOMINANCE? Under Morrill, USU has gone 224-22 (.910) at the Smith Spectrum, winning 99 of its last 109 (.907). But the Aggies are 20-7 since losing to New Mexico State on Feb. 11, 2012, including 4-3 following the injuries to Medlin and Reed.

* LOGAN BARNBURNERS? If not tougher, the Aggies' home schedule promises to be at least more glamorous than it has been perhaps in any other season at least in the Morrill era. Their season-opener against USC marks the first time USU has played a Pac-12 team in the Spectrum since Dec. 1977. Mississippi State, which visits on Nov. 23, will be the opponent to visit Logan since Arkansas in Dec. 1971. Western Illinois (Dec. 19) was picked third in the Summit League. Santa Barbara (Dec. 20) was picked second in the Big West Conference. New Mexico is in the top 25 and Boise State and UNLV received votes to be nationally ranked.

USU will also visit Ogden to play Weber State, picked first in the Big Sky, on Nov. 26 and will face BYU, picked second in the West Coast Conference, in Salt Lake City four days later.

* PRESEASON HONORS: Medlin is one of 46 players on the 2014 Bob Cousy Collegiate Point Guard of the Year Award Watch List... Medlin and Shaw were named to College Sports Madness Preseason Mountain West All-Conference Teams... Medlin and Shaw made ESPN.com's "Who is the next mid-major star?" list... Morrill is sixth on ESPN.com's ranking of Top 25 X's and O'x Coaches.

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