Before Saturday’s win, Utah State found itself squarely on the bubble. That’s no longer a concern after Merrill’s dagger. The Aggies are dancing for the second consecutive season. After being ranked in the CBT preseason Top 25, Utah State is finally starting to live up to the hype.
Injuries have derailed some of this season for the Aggies. Utah State also struggled to pull off big NCAA tournament-caliber wins even when at full strength. Merrill put the team on his back the biggest week of the season. The senior finished with 27 points to finish off San Diego State. Before Saturday, Merrill had games of 29 points against New Mexico and 27 points against Wyoming.
The in-season struggles and injuries don’t matter anymore. Sam Merrill hit the shot that has the Aggies dancing. Utah State just knocked off a potential No. 1 seed in the conference title game. Suddenly, the Aggies are an intriguing NCAA tournament team behind Merrill and big man Neemias Queta.
LOGAN, Utah — Brock Miller scored a career-high 27 points and No. 17 Utah State cruised to a 97-56 victory over Denver on Tuesday night.
Alphonso Anderson added 15 points and Sam Merrill had 14. Justin Bean led the Aggies with 15 rebounds.
The Aggies (3-0) jumped out to an 18-5 lead over the first five minutes. Miller scored Utah State’s first eight points, hitting two 3s and a jumper.
During the opening nine minutes of the game, the Aggies were especially stingy on defense. After David Nzekwesi scored Denver’s first three points of the game on a three-point play, Utah State allowed just four points over the next eight minutes. Over that time, the Aggies went on a 28-4 run. Utah State’s defense forced Denver to 36% shooting from the field and just 13% from beyond the arc. The Aggies also forced six turnovers in the first half.
Utah State’s defense was equally as good after the halftime break, holding Denver to just five points in the first seven minutes of the final half.
Ade Murkey led Denver (1-2) with 14 points.
POLL WATCH: Utah State remained at the No. 17 spot in the Associated Press poll after starting the season 2-0 with an 81-73 win against Montana State to open the season and an 89-34 route against in-state school Weber State. The No. 17 ranking the third-highest AP ranking in school history and the Aggies’ highest ranking since the 1970-71 season.
Utah State: The Aggies improve to 3-0 on the season with another win at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. Utah State again played without sophomore center Neemias Queta as he continues to recover from a knee injury. Starting in his place was Kuba Karwowski.
Denver: The Pioneers, coming off of a 74-62 win against WAC school Utah Valley University, fell to 1-2 on the season. Utah State held Denver to season lows in points scored, field goal percentage and 3-point percentage.
LOGAN, Utah — Sam Merrill scored 28 points and No. 17 Utah State beat Montana State 81-73 Tuesday night in the season opener for both teams.
Alphonso Anderson and Justin Bean each added 13 points for the Aggies. Utah State overcame 37.7% shooting from the field to hold off the Bobcats by getting to the line. The Aggies went 35 of 45 from the free-throw line.
Harald Frey led Montana State with 34 points on 10-of-20 shooting. The Bobcats had 15 turnovers, leading to 14 points for Utah State.
Anderson’s steal and layup helped spark a decisive 10-0 run that gave Utah State a 74-66 lead with 1:48 remaining. Anderson capped the spurt with two free throws.
Montana State cut it to three on a three-point play from Finn Fleute. Brock Miller answered with a corner 3 with 30 seconds left.
Diogo Brito buried a corner 3 to spark a 12-5 run that helped Utah State carve out a 22-15 lead. The Aggies missed 10 of their first 14 shots before the basket but hit 4 of 5 during the run.
Utah State could not find any consistency on offense before halftime. The Aggies missed their final eight shots of the first half and went almost seven minutes without a basket.
It opened the door for Montana State to rally.
Frey pulled the Bobcats within one when he converted a three-point play to cut Utah State’s lead to 35-34 with 40.2 seconds remaining in the half. The senior guard kept making big plays well into the second half. He made three straight 3-pointers and then followed with a three-point play to help Montana State pull within a point again at 49-48.
The Bobcats finally took a 55-54 lead on Michael Paulo’s layup with 10:09 left.
Montana State: The Bobcats successfully attacked on the perimeter for the better part of 40 minutes to give themselves a chance at pulling an upset. Montana State shot 9 of 19 from the perimeter. Frey accounted for six of those outside baskets.
Utah State: Sophomore center Neemias Queta, who is still rehabbing a knee injury he suffered in July, did not play for the Aggies. Kuba Karwowski filled in and provided one of the game’s biggest defensive highlights when he blocked three straight shots over the final three seconds before halftime.
Montana State hosts Rocky Mountain College, an NAIA school, on Saturday.
As the NBA game gets smaller and quicker and more spread out, the college game can still be beaten with big guys.
Just two years ago, in between Villanova’s two national titles, was a championship game played between a Gonzaga team built around their big guys and a North Carolina team built around their big guys.
Hell, I think you can make the argument that Kansas center Udoka Azubuike is one of the five most valuable players in college basketball, even if his potential as a pro is limited.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the best frontcourts in college hoops.
1. KANSAS (Udoka Azubuike, Mitch Lightfoot, Silvio De Sousa, David McCormack, Jalen Wilson, Tristan Enaruna)
The Jayhawks have perhaps the best traditional big men in college hoops in Udoka Azubuike, who shot 77 percent from the floor in his last (and only) healthy season, but it’s unclear just exactly how this frontcourt will work as a whole. Silvio De Sousa is probably the most talented of this group with David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot the most experienced. None of those three, though, have shown the ability to step out on the perimeter to help create the space that will be critical for Azubuike to operate. Lightfoot is actually largely expected to redshirt. That leaves freshmen Jalen Wilson and Tristan Enaruna, a couple of four-star recruits.
What Bill Self does with this situation could very well determine Kansas’ ceiling. Frankly, it won’t be at all surprising if we see Self try doses of Marcus Garrett, Isaiah Moss and Ochai Agbaji at the four to alleviate the spacing concerns.
2. DUKE (Vernon Carey, Matthew Hurt, Javin DeLaurier, Jack White)
Coach K’s use of his frontcourt last year was one of the more scrutinized tactical decisions, with Zion Williamson, a singular force in the sport, splitting his time between power forward and center, when more time at the five probably would have unlocked a little more firepower for the Blue Devils. That won’t be the case this year with Duke’s roster flipping over, but how its frontcourt performs will go a long way in determining if it can get where last year’s team didn’t – the Final Four.
Vernon Carey and Matthew Hurt are both five-star recruits and potential one-and-done lottery picks as top-15 prospects. The pair should, well, pair well with Carey at the five and Hurt stretching the floor at the four. Javin DeLaurier got a lot of run for the Blue Devils last year, and will help provide experience and depth up front.
Just how good Penny Hardaway’s frontcourt is will go a long way in determining if the Tigers are as good as their recruiting class.
It starts with James Wiseman, the 7-foot-1 top-rated freshman and potential top-NBA draft pick come June. If he’s All-American good, then that sets Memphis up for success more than anything else. There’s that pesky ankle injury that’s kept him sidelined in the preseason, which is concerning but not cause for a full panic now.
It’s not the only thing, though. Precious Achiuwa was the other five-star Hardaway collected in his No. 1 recruiting class, which also included Isaiah Maurice, D.J. Jeffries and Malcolm Dandridge.
4. GONZAGA (Killian Tillie, Filip Petrusev, Drew Timme, Pavel Zakharov)
Killian Tillie is one of the more intriguing forwards in the country. People have been raving about his talent for years, but he’s been stuck behind great college players and future pros while also dealing with injuries. He even had knee surgery this offseason that has his immediate availability currently in question. If he’s healthy, the deck has been cleared in Spokane for him to be featured.
Six-foot-11 Filip Petrusev played in 32 games last year for the ‘Zags but wasn’t a huge piece of the rotation. He did have a big summer playing for Serbia at the FIBA U19s, putting up nearly 20 points a game and shooting 66 percent from the floor. He and Tillie could make for a dynamic duo.
Coach Mark Few also has some highly-rated freshmen he can mix in with Drew Timme and Pavel Zakharov, but they did get dinged when Oumar Ballo was forced to redshirt..
5. WASHINGTON (Jaden McDaniels, Isaiah Stewart, Naz Carter, Hamier Wright, Sam Timmins)
Memphis’ recruiting deservedly got a lot of love this summer, but Mike Hopkins got the job done, too. Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels are both top-10 recruits that will immediately make the Huskies’ frontcourt formidable. Both are 6-foot-9, but Stewart weighs in at 245 pounds and McDaniels 185. Nahziah Carter averaged 8.1 points and 2.4 rebounds while Hameir right played nearly 18 minutes per game. Sam Timmins played sparingly, but shot 62 percent.
6. LOUISVILLE (Jordan Nwora, Steve Enoch, Malik Wiliams, Aidan Igiehon, Jaelyn Withers)
The 6-foot-7, 225-pound Nwora blossomed into an All-American candidate last year, averaging 17 points and 7.6 rebounds per game while shooting 37.4 percent from the floor. He’s an ACC player of the year frontrunner, and the cornerstone to both the Cardinals’ frontcourt and their Final Four aspirations.
Steve Enoch was effective both inside and out last season while Malik Williams is a top-level shotblocker. Aidan Igiehon is a four-star, top-75 recruit while Jaelyn Withers is a top-150 prospect from 2019.
7. MISSISSIPPI STATE (Reggie Perry, Abdul Ado, Elias King, Robert Woodard II, Prince Oduro, KeyShawn Feazell, E.J. Datcher, Quinten Post)
Reggie Perry is a first-team all-SEC pick after he averaged 9.7 points and 7.2 rebounds last season while Abdul Ado is back after shooting 61.4 percent from the floor and blocking 1.8 shots per game last season. Robert Woodard played 17 minutes per game last year while Prince Oduro is eligible after a promising freshman season for Siena.
Bruno Fernando is gone, but Jalen Smith was nearly as productive as him last season as a freshman. The 6-foot-10 Smith blocked 12.5 percent of opponent shots while on the floor while shooting 56.2 percent from 2-point range. He shot just 26.8 percent from distance, but hoisted 71 attempts, at least an indication he could potentially be a floor-spacer. The Terps are also adding twins Makhi and Makhel Mitchell, the former a top-75 recruit and the later a three-star prospect. Chol Marial is a 7-foot-2 freshman that could contribute if he gets healthy.
9. BAYLOR (Tristan Clark, Mark Vital, Freddie Gillispie, Flo Thamba)
Tristan Clark was on his way to first-team all-Big 12 honors last year before his knee injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season in January. He’s back this year, and he’ll anchor one of the best frontcourts in the country. Mark Vital, Freddie Gillispie and Flo Thamba all were contributors last season, and should be more effective with Clark by their side this season.
10. MICHIGAN STATE (Xavier Tillman, Marcus Bingham, Thomas Kithier, Malik Hall, Joey Hauser*)
Nick Ward and Kenny Goins are gone, but Xavier Tillman returns after a productive sophomore campaign that has him blossom on both ends of the floor, albeit not his 3-point shooting. Marcus Bingham and Thomas Kithier will be in line for more minutes after being seldomly used as freshmen while Malik Hall is a top-75 recruit.
The wildcard here is Joey Hauser. The Marquette transfer has already seen his request for an immediate-eligibility waiver denied by the NCAA, but Michigan State has appealed. If the NCAA reverses course, the Spartans’ frontcourt will suddenly look much more formidable.
The Florida frontcourt got a massive boost when the 6-foot-10 Kerry Blackshear decided to grad-transfer over this past offseason. Blackshear averaged 14.9 points and 7.5 rebounds for the Hokies last season while also shooting 50.8 percent from the field. He’ll join Keyontae Johnson, who put up 8 and 6 last year, and Gorjok Gak, a 6-foot-11 center who missed last season with injury.
12. VIRGINIA (Jay Huff, Mamadi Diakite, Braxton Key)
The national champs lost a lot from last year’s team, but their frontcourt remains somewhat intact, although De’Andre Hunter is a major loss, no doubt. Getting Mamdi Diakite, Braxton Key and Jay Huff all to return is a help, though.
Diakite averaged 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds in 22 minutes per game while blocking more than 10 percent of opponent shots while he was on the floor. Braxton Key and Jay Huff were smaller contributors last year, but still important ones. They’ll help Tony Bennett bridge the gap to the post-title era.
Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson are both gone, but Garrison Brooks is back from his junior season and five-star center Armando Bacot comes into the fold. So, too, is William & Mary graduate transfer Justin Pierce, a third-team all-CAA honoree who averaged 14.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game last season as a junior.
14. UTAH STATE (Neemias Queta, Justin Bean, Diogo Brito, Kuba Karwowski, Roche Grootfaam)
Neemias Queta, a 7-foot sophomore, averaged 11.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game in his rookie campaign while shooting 61.4 percent, putting him among the country’s most productive centers. Justin Bean saw more time late in the season and was productive against MWC competition. Diogo Brito is a floor-spacer when he’s at the four. Kuba Karnowski and Roche Grootfaam are a pair of junior college transfers that could contribute.
Matt Painter and the Boilermakers have made a habit of having one of the nation’s best frontcourts, and that won’t be any different this year. Matt Haarms will anchor the group after the 7-foot-3 center averaged 9.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game while shooting 63.2 percent from the floor. Two freshmen that saw time last year – 6-foot-9 forwards Aaron Wheeler and Trevion Williams – will step into bigger roles up front, too.
Utah State remains Mountain West favorites with return of Neemias Queta
The Mountain West will still go through Utah State next year following Tuesday’s announcement that freshman big man Neemias Queta will return for his sophomore season.
One of the nation’s most underrated freshmen last season, the 6-foot-11 Queta received plenty of buzz at the NBA Draft Combine thanks to his emerging two-way abilities and measurables — such as having the biggest hands at the combine.
In the end, the reigning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year will return to school next season for an Aggies program that is only losing two seniors from an NCAA tournament team. Putting up 11.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game, Queta has a chance to play himself into lock first-round position with a strong season for Utah State as the program also returns Sam Merrill, the reigning conference player of the year.
The Mountain West hasn’t received a lot of buzz in recent seasons outside of Nevada, but last year saw Utah State rapidly rise into the national conversation. The Aggies will undoubtedly be one of the nation’s non power conference teams to watch during the 2019-20 season.
Bubble Banter: Xavier, Alabama, Utah State with critical games
MINNESOTA (NET: 56, SOS: 55): The Golden Gophers landed a massive, massive win on Tuesday night, as they picked off Purdue (11) in Minneapolis. It’s the third Q1 win for Richard Pitino’s and their second elite win in league play — they also beat Wisconsin (17) on the road. The Gophers are just 2-8 this season on the road, but they are sitting here on March 6th with a 19-11 record, 10 wins against Q1 and Q2 opponents and just one loss outside the top 100 — at Boston College (111), which is still a Q2 game. Minnesota entered the day sitting right around the play-in game on most projections, and this should be enough to get them on the right side of the bubble. They’re in a really good spot.
OKLAHOMA (NET: 41, SOS: 23): As hard as it may be to believe, Oklahoma entered the day sitting as a No. 9 seed in our latest bracket projection at NBC Sports despite the fact that they were 18-11 overall and 6-10 in the Big 12. That’s what happens when you have a pair Q1 wins, an 8-11 mark against Q1 and Q2, no bad losses and exactly zero games played against Q4 competition. Now add to that Tuesday night’s win — by 13 points over Kansas (16) at home. The Sooners play at Kansas State (27) on Saturday, and at this point, I think they are just about a lock to dance.
VCU (NET: 36, SOS: 42): The Rams did what they needed to do on Tuesday, absolutely drilling George Mason in Fairfax and heading back to Richmond needing nothing more than a win over Saint Joseph’s to just about lock up their bid. The Rams are 6-4 in Q1 and Q2 games, highlighted by a win at Texas (33), but they also have a pair of Q3 losses. I don’t know if they can withstand two more ugly losses, which is what just about every loss to an Atlantic 10 opponent is this season, but I do think they can get a bid with one.
ALABAMA (NET: 53, SOS: 21): The Crimson Tide whiffed on a major chance to land their third Q1 win of the season when they blew a double-digit lead at home against Auburn (20). They are now sitting at 17-13 overall with two Q1 wins and a 9-12 mark against Q1 and Q2. The loss to Georgia State (135) at home is bad, but the win over Kentucky (5) is good. They’re probably sitting in one of the play-in games at the moment, so there is definitely work left to do.
UTAH STATE (NET: 30, SOS: 100): The Aggies dodged a massive bullet on Tuesday night, going into Fort Collins with a share of the MWC title on the line and getting taken to overtime by Colorado State (185). But they got the win, and at this point, with Saturday’s win over Nevada (23) in the books and their regular season over, I think they’re dancing as long as they can avoid taking a bad loss in the MWC tournament.
XAVIER (NET: 70, SOS: 46): Xavier played its way back into the bubble picture thanks to a surprising five-game Big East winning streak. Momentum ran out for the Musketeers during a Tuesday road loss at Butler (59). Squandering a valuable Q1 opportunity against the Bulldogs, Xavier finds itself at 3-9 against Q1 teams and a solid 6-2 with Q2 opponents. Saturday’s home game against St. John’s (61) is now a must-win scenario for the Musketeers if they want to maintain any sort of bubble credibility — but that will likely only be a Q2 opportunity.
OLE MISS (NET: 37, SOS: 85): The Rebels missed on a chance to beat Kentucky (5) at home on Tuesday, but they still are in a good spot. They are 19-11 overall, but 10 of their 11 losses are against Q1 opponents, they swept Auburn (20) and they have a total of seven Q1 and Q2 wins. I would not recommend losing at Missouri (86) and in the first round of the SEC tournament, but I do think that all it would take is one more win to get the job done.