LOGAN, Utah – Stew Morrill has built Utah State into a power in the WAC. They’ve won seven regular season titles since 2000 and made eight NCAA Tournaments in that time. To get an idea of the level that this program has reached, think about this: they packed the 10,270 seat Dee Glen Smith Spectrum at more than 80% capacity — over 90% capacity in the 4,000 seat student section — in a down year and it was still considered a mediocre crowd.
Granted, he did take over a team coming off of an NCAA Tournament appearance in 1998, but before Larry Eustachy built that team into a winner, the Aggies hadn’t been to an NCAA Tournament in a decade. Recruiting players to spend the winter in Logan, UT, a small town in the northeast corner of Utah that sits squarely in one of the most religious areas of our country, is not an easy sell.
Which is why Morrill has to take some risks.
And those risks don’t always pan out.
Remember Anthony DiLoreto? A 7’1″ center from Wisconsin, DiLoreto was supposed to be headed to Cal Poly before he was arrested for taking part in a bank robbery while he was in high school; he was the getaway driver. Morrill gave him a shot, and DiLoreto blew it. He enrolled at Utah State during the 2009-2010 season, but couldn’t make it a full year without getting in trouble. He was kicked off of the team after getting caught with weed that May.
“I’m willing to roll the dice,” Morrill said. “I’ll give a guy a second chance. I won’t give him a third.”
And there have been times where those second chances have paid off.
Gary Wilkinson dropped out of high school after getting cut from the basketball team, spending his time, as he told ESPN.com, sitting around and partying with his friends. But Wilkinson turned his life around, finding religion — he became a member of the LDS church, like the overwhelming majority of USU students — while earning his GED before spending two years on a mission in Canada and heading to Salt Lake Community College. Wilkinson eventually ended up at Utah State, where he became the WAC Player of the Year in 2009 as a 26 year old power forward.
Willkinson was “as solid as they come”, Morrill said. He had turned his life around by the time that he reached Logan.
That wasn’t necessarily true with David Pak.
In 1993, when Pak was 16 years old, he raped a 23 year old woman at knife point. After pleading guilty to one count of forcible rape and another count of forcible rape with a weapon, Pak was sentenced to eight years in prison. Pak cleaned up while he did his time, eventually enrolling at Saddleback Community College, winning the Orange Empire Conference’s MVP as a sophomore.
It took some cajoling, but Morrill eventually convinced Utah State to accept Pak. “A lot of people wouldn’t take that gamble,” he told the San Diego Tribune back in 2006, “I’ll be honest with you. Our president said, ‘It’s on you.’ I swallowed hard and said, ‘OK.'”
Pak was a two year starter for the Aggies, leading the team in assists in 2005-2006 and eventually carrying them to the NCAA Tournament. That’s quite a difference from asking his cellmate’s permission to dribble a basketball late into the night.
The latest risk Morrill has taken is Kyisean Reed, a bouncy, left-handed 6’6″ combo-forward that can crack the Sportscenter Top Ten just as easily as he can step out and hit a 17 footer. Reed enrolled at Antelope Valley, a Junior College in Lancaster, CA, that is more well-known for producing USC transfer Dewayne Dedmon, but he didn’t last the full two years there.
“I guess me and coach didn’t really see eye to eye,” Reed said of getting kicked off the team as a sophomore. “I made a mistake.”
Reed was concerned about his reputation, especially when it came to the schools that were recruiting him. He’s not a bad kid, he’s actually quite friendly. Shy, even. And while he got himself kicked off of the basketball team, he wasn’t kicked out of school. Reed finished up his classes and got himself eligible for Division I basketball, but that didn’t change the fact that he was concerned about his image.
“No one absolutely knows what happened except me and the coach,” he said. “I understand that, even coming here, people had questions like, ‘What did he do? Was it really that egregious to get kicked off the team?’ Well, I’m here.”
And his arrival was something that Morrill was not concerned about.
As he did with Pak, Morrill got a tip from AVJC about Reed. Its a program that he has a long and established relationship with, so when he was told he can trust in Reed, he believed it.
“I’ve known the program — the AD and the former basketball coach is a longtime friend of mine,” Morrill said. “I was up to speed on everything that went on. Kyisean had a tough background growing up at times. It was a different type of issue, it wasn’t criminal or anything like that. They allowed him to finish his year [academically] and we felt like we could take a chance on him.”
And its paid off. Reed has started 15 games while averaging 10.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg and leading the team in blocked shots. That said, Morrill isn’t yet satisfied with Reed, but that dissatisfaction stems completely from Reed’s performance on the court.
“We need him to rebound a little better and play a little harder at times, but he gives us an athletic presence that we desperately need,” Morrill said.
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.