McEwen and Merrill committed to leading USU basketball’s comeback

LOGAN – As fans of more than 100 college basketball teams watched their schools participate in the four postseason tournaments spread across the country, Aggie fans were left out, again.

It was a year of unmet expectations for Utah State. Fans were able to catch glimpses of their young team’s potential, but a good performance one game was often followed with disappointing losses. The 14-17 final record was the program’s first losing season since 1993, before any member of the current team was born.

Fans of the program weren’t alone in their dissatisfaction. Guards Koby McEwen and Sam Merrill both feel the team underperformed. Even though they have just one season with the team, they are putting it on themselves to turn things around.

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“We did have a rough season this year,” McEwen said. “We didn’t do as well as we wanted to do, but I can almost guarantee that we’re going to be better next year. We’re going to work as hard as we can and I’m going to put that responsibility on me and Sam, especially. We’re going to be the leaders coming back, the returners. We’re going to work as hard as we can to bring our program back to what it once was.”

According to Sean O’Sullivan, member of the USU athletics media relations department, the duo combined for more assists and points than any other pair of freshmen in school history. The 744 points and 194 assists easily passed Tai Wesley and Tyler Newbold, despite playing in nine fewer combined games. Merrill led the team in assists, steals, free throw percentage and 3-point percentage. McEwen’s 14.9 points and 5.1 rebounds per game helped him runaway with the Mountain West’s freshman of the year honor.

McEwen’s numbers were more than what most college players could hope to achieve as a senior, but he is far from satisfied with his first year in college ball. He would rather have wins.

“It’s all about winning for me,” he said. “We really didn’t have the season that we wanted, so next I’m hoping that me and Sam can turn this thing around, just be the best team possible.”

For McEwen, the “best team possible” means being at least the top Mountain West team.

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“I’m not thinking nothing less,” he said. “I want to win the league title and I want to win the Mountain West tournament and I want to get back to the NCAA tournament. I’m not saying this just to please you all. I really want to work for it.”

With three years of eligibility left for both McEwen and Merrill, there should be little reason to doubt the team will get better, but there is a glaring hole that needs to be filled. Jalen Moore, USU’s top scorer and rebounder for each of the past three seasons, finished his USU career.

It is Moore’s leadership McEwen said he will miss more than anything else. Moore was the guy the freshman said he could look to for guidance.

“We’re going to miss a lot of the good things that he does,” McEwen said. “He’s very long. It makes it harder for people to go around him, he blocks shots. Jalen does a lot of things. It’s hard to sit here and say we’re going to replace him. There won’t be another Jalen, but we’re going to try and fill the holes in as much as possible with him being gone.”

Merrill said replacing him will be a collective effort. He said part of it could come from two of last season’s redshirt forwards, Klay Stall and Deron Henson. Merrill is also looking forward to the addition of Brock Miller, a 6-foot-5 freshman shooting guard recently returned from an LDS church mission, and Dwayne Brown, a 6-foot-7, 220 pound wing transferring from Northern Oklahoma Tonkawa.

“It’s hard to replace a guy like that’s had so much success over the last four years,” Merrill said of Moore. “That’s why, this offseason, it’s very important to develop some camaraderie and figure out where that production both offensively and defensively and rebounding will come from.”

While Moore’s points, rebounds and blocks will likely be spread out among the team, it appears the leadership responsibility will fall on the shoulders of the two sophomores-to-be. Merrill said he and McEwen understand the duty, have accepted it and have already been discussing it with each other.

“We’ve talked about it and talked about what things need to change in the mindset and the attitude that me and him need to have,” Merrill said, “both in the weight room and on the court this offseason.”

For McEwen, that doesn’t add any pressure. More than anything, he said, it motivates him. He knows what it is like for fans to expect big things. He felt all eyes were on him before he played his first game as a freshman and said he is still confident in himself and the work he has put in.

“I’m pretty sure Sam thinks the same way,” he said. “I’m pretty sure he doesn’t feel much pressure at all. We’re just going out there and doing what we do best. Everything will take care of itself.”

Merrill said the right mindset and effort is in place.

“I’m as big of an Aggie as any fan out there,” he said. “I grew up coming to these games and obviously it’s hard when you don’t have as much success as you did in the past, but I would just say trust in the guys that we have, in the coaching staff and our desire to get better and our desire to win games.”

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