New season brings challenges and opportunities for Aggie basketball

USU vs Air Force Men's Basketball 2_25_17

LOGAN – It’s a new season for Utah State basketball.

The team has a chance at a fresh start. It’s an opportunity to leave last year in last year, when the team finished with a losing record for the first time since the 1992-93 season.

Sophomore guard Sam Merrill said he and his teammates aren’t happy with how it went. He said they are anxious to get back on track.

“I myself have never been on a team that has had a record under .500,” he said. “So we’re competitive. We’re going to go out there and try and win every single game we play.”

USU’s poor-record problem wasn’t limited to last year. When looking at win totals, the Aggies have been on a clear, downward trajectory since the team’s three-straight seasons of 30-plus wins that started in 2008. Last year’s 14 wins was a USU low not seen in decades.

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Duryea said he’s referenced moments from last season in his coaching. He’s talked about the close losses, costly defensive mistakes and the times when he felt his team wasn’t mentally prepared. He said he has noticed a different level of competitiveness this year.

“They’ve been a tremendous practice group so far,” he said. “They really haven’t had more than one day in I can recollect 21 or 22 practices where they haven’t shown up to work. I’ve been encouraged.

“We’re going to have to take the court with a little bit of a swagger or edge, a little bit of feistiness to compete. It will be obvious to everybody, we are a little bit undersized.”

There has been some positive preseason recognition for USU, but most of it is for sophomore guard Koby McEwen, not for the team as a whole. Out of 11 conference teams, Utah State is picked to finish eighth.

“We finished eighth last year,” Merrill said. “I didn’t really expect a great ranking because I know there are teams they are always going to put ahead of others. It’s our job to go prove everyone wrong, to go win games and see what we can do.”

Friday’s game against Providence is an exhibition. That means a win or loss won’t go on the team’s overall record, and no stats will count. For Duryea, the game is still important. He views it as a final tune-up game of sorts, one where the team can build on what is going well from practices and the previous scrimmage, and to work on what concerns him.

Duryea’s biggest concern for this season? Rebounding.

He believes it could make or break this upcoming season. It is something he wants his team to focus on during the exhibition.

“The challenge for this group, because of our size limitations, is going to be finishing possessions whether we are in man or zone,” he said. “It is going to be forcing a miss and then being able to get that ball off the rim or off the backboard and secure it to go the other way. I think we have a chance to be a good offensive team but we can’t be a good defensive team that doesn’t finish possessions with rebounds. That doesn’t do us any good.”

Duryea said he will use Friday’s exhibition to try to get every player some minutes, to see how each reacts in a game setting.

“You’re looking for how kids respond to being on your home floor for the first time with referees and uniforms and an opponent that you don’t know much about,” he said.

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This isn’t the first unofficial game. Another is already in the books. USU traveled to Oregon State last weekend for an almost-five-hour closed scrimmage. NCAA rules prohibit Duryea from revealing the score and certain stats, but he said it was a “very, very competitive game” and that there were some good things that took place his team can build on. He said they shot and passed the ball well, that offensively, it looked like what he wants his team to be.

“We are trying to be an open court team that plays with pace that can spread the floor,” he said. “We’ve said we want to shoot 25 to 30 threes per game. That takes a lot of work offensively. You have to have a lot of ball movement, you have to have a lot of man movement. You have to put pressure on the rim that creates those 3-point opportunities. I thought we did that pretty well against a good, solid Pac 12 opponent.”

At least one newcomer is on board.

“My goal as an Aggie is to win the Mountain West,” Deangelo Isby said. “That’s on everybody’s agenda but that would be our first one here.”

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