By Kyle Koso
There’s a consistency when it comes to the state of Utah, things a person can count on when you cross the border and interact with the population and geography of the Beehive State.
An aura of reliability has also surrounded the men’s basketball team at Utah State, with the Aggies just recently saying goodbye to head coach Stew Morrill and his 17-year hitch running the show. His replacement, Tim Duryea, was Morrill’s assistant for 14 years, which kept disruption at a minimum when the program changed hands.
Morrill preferred for Utah State to play in a local, small pre-conference tournament in December, rather than go somewhere exotic. But Duryea and the Aggies are tweaking the routine in 2016, heading down to the Cancun Challenge and facing Purdue and either Texas Tech or Auburn, all Power 5 programs that would not be on the menu in that typical December event in Logan, UT.
“We’ve hosted our own event for over 20 years, and we decided we needed to get out and do some other events for some visibility, and for quality of competition,” said Duryea, noting there’s a lot of money and labor expended to run even a small at-home tournament. “We started looking at other events; the location is very attractive (for the Cancun event), as is quality of play. Anytime a Mountain West school like we are can go get a couple at-bats against Power 5 schools … that’s what you’re looking to do. The NCAA Tournament committee looks at your resume at the end of the year – top 50, top 100 wins – the number of chances you get to play those teams can put us at a disadvantage. We just have to be smart, with 10 new players, but we felt this was an event and location that was perfect for us.”
Utah State, which finished 16-15 last season and did not get to play in the postseason, is all about taking on challenges. Moving to the Mountain West after successful runs in the Big West and WAC has made it tougher to emerge from the conference scrum, but the Aggies like their chances for a breakthrough this time around. Anchored by senior wing player Jalen Moore, USU has a proven record of shooting the ball well, minimizing turnovers and making defensive adjustments that keep them in range on the scoreboard.
“I’ve been working on defense a lot more, guarding shorter, faster players on the perimeter. I’m a big wing, so I’ll be going against a lot of smaller guys who are quicker than me,” said Moore, who has earned all-MWC honors in each of the past two seasons. “I’ve got to use my length and be smart about it. Lateral quickness. I will be guarded by shorter guys, so need to be able to score all three levels – shooting 3’s, mid-range and posting up. Hopefully, it will all come together.
“It’s awesome for me, going to Mexico. I’ve never left the States before, so it’s my first trip out of the country. We’re going to a beautiful place, a fun place, and we’ll get to play teams that we wouldn’t get to play in the regular season. Or, if we did, we’d have to go into their place, so it’ll be fun to play them on a neutral court. For me, it’s a great experience for my senior year, and hopefully we can make a name for ourselves and compete with these bigger teams. You have to compete – you do that, you can catch some eyes and win some games.”
The roster will feature several other weapons, including prized freshman Koby McEwen (who scored 19 points on 7-of-7 shooting in USU’s exhibition game win Nov. 4) and senior point guard Shane Rector, who played two standout games in last season’s MWC Tournament and gave the team steady production in terms of assists and steals.
“I wish we’d been able to play another game, but I was happy with the way I ended up the year. I’ll try to use that momentum and bring that into this year, keep trying to get us better as a team and individually,” Rector said. “I’m excited about Cancun; I haven’t been out of the country before, so I’m glad Utah State is taking a new direction with this. I’m ready for a new experience and get my tan on in Cancun.
“(Media polls) got us at sixth (this season), but we are way better than sixth. As the season is progressing, people will see that. They aren’t in there grinding with us and seeing us practice. As long as we keep improving on the defensive end, we’re moving in the right direction.”
The Aggies will have to figure out that path with a cluster of new players, with seven freshmen and a few other fresh faces on board. One goal is to get roles established early and create a steadiness that was lacking in spots a year ago. Utah State had a 2-8 stretch of games in the MWC that necessitated a defensive overhaul and made it hard for the team to recover, although by the MWC Tournament, many of the wrinkles had been smoothed over.
“I’ve been a leader before, and even stepped into that role as a sophomore. I know what it’s like to have new guys around,” Moore said. “I’ve been trying to get the guys to realize Division-I basketball is a grind and not always as easy as they think it is. They come from their high school teams thinking they are the stars; you come to college and you have to adjust and know your role to be successful. Play hard, give the effort it takes to win a game. Once every player gets that, we’ll be a successful team.”
If Moore sounds confident in the recipe, it’s because Duryea and the USU routine has a way of building faith. A Logan, UT native, Moore has known Duryea since he was 8 years old, and the trust runs deeply in both directions. That’s why the Aggies plan on sticking with their formula.
“Staying at one place with one guy as an assistant for 14 years, that’s pretty unheard of. It speaks to how much I enjoyed working for coach Morrill, love the university, and how much my family has loved growing up here,” Duryea said. “There’s a great basketball tradition, and you develop an ownership in the program and feel like a little piece of it is ours, and you take pride in that.
“I was thrilled to get the chance to coach at this university, as opposed to the job of taking over for Stew Morrill. You’ve got to take over, put your footprint on things, change the things that need tweaking, and yet not forget your identity and why you’ve had success here at this program. The key is winning games, because the fans want to see results. This isn’t the same job as when we were in the Big West, or were a member of old WAC. The scheduling, the competition – this is a good deep league. You might lose two or three certain games, and you’re eighth place. Win them, you can get to the (upper) third.”