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Logan • Tim Duryea walked out of Utah State's locker room, smiled and sauntered down the long hallway inside the bowels of the Spectrum.
USU's top assistant had just watched the Aggies dismantle Oakland on Sunday night. What he saw wasn't close to the same mediocre team that sat 14-14 at one point, and had writers scrambling to research the last time Utah State basketball had suffered a losing season.
Those Aggies struggled to score, couldn't defend, lacked toughness and seemed more than ready to end what had been a miserable season wracked by injury and an overall lack of talent.
The Aggies who will meet Mercer on Wednesday night for the CollegeInsider.com Tournament title? These Aggies look like a Stew Morrill team, an offensively efficient bunch with an equal zest for defending. The change has taken a little over a month. But it's been enough to whet the appetite, and enough to finally bring smiles around a program that's been used to winning for so long.
"It kind of makes you want to start this thing all over again," Duryea said.
Utah State has won seven of its past eight games, saving a season that was lost for the better part of three months. Instead of this going down as one of Morrill's aberrations, it could go down as one of his greatest triumphs.
Instead of the first losing season in more than a decade, a win over Mercer would give the Aggie program at least 22 wins for a 13th consecutive year.
That's how well Utah State has been playing in the CIT. And while the Aggies have feasted on mid-major programs in the friendly confines of their home gym, there is little doubt that Morrill's young team has made major strides in the quality-of-play department.
"I'm as proud of this team as I've been of any team I've coached," Morrill said. "These guys could've quit. It would've been real easy for them to do that. They were 14-14, and they could've easily gone 14-18. But the seniors didn't want to end it that way, and neither did the young guys."
What Utah State has done is set a foundation for next season. While this year started with a ton of questions, the Aggies of next year will have an identity.
Without question, it will be Preston Medlin's team. The sophomore has used the CIT to firmly establish himself as Utah State's best player and a reliable go-to guy offensively. He has averaged 23 points per game in the tournament, and only Idaho was able to defend him with any success.
Others have stepped up as well. Sophomore Danny Berger has found his shooting stroke. Freshmen big men Ben Clifford and Jordan Stone have played well in the paint. Sophomore forward Mitch Bruneel has carved a nice role for himself off the bench, and E.J. Farris has run the team well in backup point guard minutes.
Yes, these Aggies have made the most of an extra three weeks of games. More important perhaps, these Aggies have benefitted from an extra three weeks of practice.
"This is going to help the underclassmen a lot," Morgan Grim said. "We have a lot of guys coming back, and this is almost like a head start for next year for them."
Mercer at Utah State
P At the Spectrum (Logan)
Tipoff • Wednesday, 7 p.m.
TV • Fox College Sports
Radio • 97.5 FM