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USU basketball showed flashes of potential in transition season

Published March 23, 2017 4:57 pm

USU basketball • Freshman point guard has shown his skills, needs to be a leader.
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Transition has defined the Utah State basketball program in recent years, and this season served as the starting point for another pivotal change.

Four seasons ago, USU transitioned to the Mountain West Conference. Two seasons ago, it changed from legendary coach Stew Morrill to his longtime assistant Tim Duryea. Now after three years of having Jalen Moore as the face of the team, the program's identity will largely form around dynamic young guard Koby McEwen.

The Aggies' season ended with a loss in the quarterfinals of the MWC tournament to eventual champion Nevada. The loss sealed the Aggies' first losing season (14-17 overall, 7-11 MWC) since 1992-93. As much as this season was about Moore finishing his career as one of the best players in program history, it was also largely a bridge year to the program's next era.

The Aggies' rotation featured two freshman and three sophomores in the top eight players. McEwen's flashes of brilliance — he earned the conference's rookie of the year award as well as honorable mention all-conference honors — coupled with his growing pains as the point guard contributed to the team's ups and downs. Mc­Ewen recognized that and admitted at the end of the regular season he must "get comfortable being a leader."

McEwen (14.9 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game) showed he can be a force in the team's opening-round conference tournament game against San Jose State. He scored 27 points on 9-for-11 shooting, grabbed five rebounds, dished out four assists, blocked a shot and recorded a steal. Even while he took over the game, he left room for criticism with six turnovers.

"At the D-1 level it's not really about how good you are physically," McEwen said. "It's a lot of what you do with your mental, how you take things in and how you carry it over to the court. I felt like I've gotten better at that during the season. I'm still going to continue to work and get better for years to come. Hopefully, I just continue to improve and get better."

Freshman guard Sam Merrill, a former Bountiful High star who served as two-year Mormon mission prior to enrolling, didn't garner the same type of accolades as McEwen, but provided efficient and smart play offensively (9.4 ppg, 45 percent 3-point field goal percentage, 3.3-1 assist-turnover ratio) as well as dogged tenacity on defense. Duryea lauded Merrill for playing through unspecified physical ailments in the tournament.

"I think our freshmen guards have learned a lot," Duryea said. "… [Koby] has come miles from where he started the beginning the year. I think we're in great shape with those guys. We've got to improve internally, we've got a couple of kids coming in, got a couple more to add, pieces on the front court. But I like the direction we're going."

This season exposed a lack of consistent impact performers in the frontcourt aside from Moore. Duryea made it clear they needed more from those spots when asked about sophomores Norbert Janicek and Alexis Dargenton following the season-ending loss.

"I just didn't think they were ready to compete and never really settled into the game," Duryea said. "I thought Norby, really, two games in a row, wasn't the player that he had been down the stretch. I really don't know the reason for that."

The Aggies redshirted a pair of big men rated by ESPN as three-star recruits in 6-foot-9 forward Klay Stall from Arizona, and 6-7 wing Deron Henson from California. The Aggies also signed junior college wing Dwayne Brown. After a two-year mission, Brock Miller, a 6-5 wing from Brighton High School, will also join the program next season.

lworthy@sltrib.com Twitter: @LWorthySports —

The highs • Beating Mountain West regular-season and tournament champion Nevada; The play of senior wing and all-conference honoree Jalen Moore as well as the progress of freshmen guards Koby McEwen and Sam Merrill; Ranking at top of the conference in 3-point shooting and second in fielg goal percentage.

The lows • Finishing below .500 for the first time since 1992-93; The team's 3-8 road record; Ranking last in the conference in assist-turnover ratio.

What's next • Four starters return from lineup that finished the season; Sam Merrill and McEwen will try to build on impressive freshman season; At least two junior college transfers and two freshmen coming off missions, Crew Ainge and Brock Miller, are slated to join the program.






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