SALT LAKE CITY — At the end of Utah State men’s basketball practices, head coach Craig Smith puts 2:30 on the clock for a shooting and rebounding drill. There are six baskets with one shooter and one rebounder at each.
The object is simply to hit as many 3-pointers as possible. This is where Smith discusses the extremely competitive nature of junior guard Sam Merrill.
“He got 30, so I was yapping a little bit, ‘Ohhh, 30’ — he was so (mad),” Smith said after the Aggies’ win over Weber State in the Beehive Classic on Dec. 8. “So we do it again and I went all around, and there’s six baskets, he’s the last one. Before I could even say his name he goes, ‘44!’
“’Like, you made 44 in two-and-a-half minutes? How many did you miss?’
“’Three,’” Smith said was Merrill’s response.
The Aggies (8-2) have been the pleasant surprise that the Mountain West sorely needs, since traditionally good teams San Diego State, Boise State, UNLV and New Mexico are stumbling towards conference play rather than improving.
Merrill, a 6-foot-5 junior from Bountiful High, has played a massive role already and figures to be big part of the Aggies going forward.
Merrill is USU’s leading scorer through the first 10 games, averaging 20.6 points per game, shooting 50.8 percent from the field, 42.9 percent from 3-point range and 92.3 percent from the foul line to go with a team-high 4.1 assists per game.
It’s an improvement from last season where was named third-team All-Mountain West, and a change from his high school days at Bountiful where teams not only had to prepare for him, but also current BYU player Zac Seljaas.
So now, Merrill’s essentially “the guy.”
“At the end of the day it’s basketball and if you have the right mindset and you work hard, then you’ll find a way to adjust to it,” Merrill said after the Beehive Classic.
It hasn’t been that cut and dry for Merrill, though. His time with USU basketball has been up-and-down since he committed to the Aggies back in high school.
In 2013 when Merrill signed with Utah State, Stew Morrill was still USU’s coach. When Merrill was on his mission to Nicaragua for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he found out Morrill was retiring and there would be a new coach when he returned to Utah.
That coach was Tim Duryea, one of Morrill’s former assistants who helped recruit Merrill. Duryea was fired after last season and replaced by Smith, who had coached the University of South Dakota the previous four seasons.
“Every coach brings something different to the table, so I’ve learned a lot as a basketball player by every single one of them,” Merrill said.
The entire coaching staff he knew when USU recruited him has since left for one reason or another. Enter the 46-year-old Smith, an energetic coach who just has something about him that Merrill really likes.
“It was a bit of a tough situation because I had two weeks where I had no idea what was going to happen. I had no idea if I was going to like the new guy or if I was going to hate the new guy,” Merrill said. “There was some anxiousness there but, from the first day I met coach Smith, I was on board.”
When Smith was preparing to interview for the USU job, he watched some film on the Aggies. Immediately, Merrill stood out.
“I’m not saying he’s better or worse than anyone, but I know like for our style of play, he’s perfect,” Smith said.
There’s a lot of freedom in Utah State’s playing style and a lot of chances for a 6-foot-5 guard with honed-in shooting like Merrill to do a lot on offense.
Smith said that with a young and inexperienced team — made younger and more inexperienced after Koby McEwen transferred to Marquette — it was important for Merrill to establish a leadership presence.
On the first day of summer practice, Smith said the team was quiet. He implored Merrill to be more vocal and there hasn’t been an issue in that regard since, Smith said.
Just three games remain for USU before Mountain West play, which, apart from nationally ranked Nevada, has become muddied water. The Wolf Pack was picked first in the conference’s preseason poll, followed by San Diego State, New Mexico, Boise State, Fresno State and UNLV.
Of those five, only Fresno State hasn’t underwhelmed preseason expectations. Where was Utah State picked in that poll?