LOGAN, Utah (ABC4 Sports) – In a historic year for Utah State basketball, the Aggies took home almost all of the Mountain West Conference awards.
Sam Merrill was named the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, Neemias Queta is the Defensive Player and Fresrhman of the Year, while Craig Smith earns Coach of the Year honors.
Merrill led the league in scoring during conference play, averaging 22.0 points per game, and punctuated the Aggies’ run in the Mountain West with a career-high 38 points in the regular season finale at Colorado State. In addition, Merrill led the Mountain West in free throws made (99) and free throw percentage (.892), and was second in minutes played (667), third in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.3), fourth in 3-pointers made (49) and fifth in assists (79).
Merrill is the first Aggie to average more than 20 points in a season since Jaycee Carroll averaged 22.4 points per game as a senior during the 2007-08 campaign. Merrill is the seventh player in Utah State history to be named the conference player of the year, joining Dean Hunger (Big West, 1980), Greg Grant (Big West, 1986), Eric Franson (Big West, 1995), Carroll (WAC, 2008), Gary Wilkinson (WAC, 2009) and Tai Wesley (WAC, 2011). Merrill is one of only two juniors in Utah State history to earn the award as Franson was also a junior during the 1994-95 season. Additionally, Merrill is one of just 10 non-seniors to be named Mountain West Player of the Year in league history.
Smith led the Aggies to a 25-6 record and tied with Nevada for the regular season title after being picked ninth in the preseason poll. Smith is the just the second first-year head coach in Mountain West history to be named Coach of the Year, joining Utah’s Ray Giacoletti, who led the Utes to a 29-6 overall record and a 13-1 conference record during the 2004-05 season. Smith is also just the second first-year head coach in Utah State history to be named Coach of the Year, joining USU Hall of Famer Rod Tueller, who earned the award in his inaugural year during the 1979-80 season. In all, Utah State has garnered six coach of the year honors, spread among four head coaches as Larry Eustachy earned the award in 1995 and 1998, and Stew Morrill earned the award in 2000 and 2002.
Utah State’s 25 wins under Smith are the most by a first-year head coach in USU history and fifth-most by a first-year head coach in Mountain West history, trailing Giacoletti (29 wins in 2004-05), New Mexico’s Craig Neal (27 wins in 2013-14), UNLV’s Dave Rice (26 wins in 2011-12) and Colorado State’s Eustachy (26 wins in 2012-13).
Queta anchored a Utah State defense that ranks 10th in the nation in field goal percentage defense (.392) and third in the nation in 2-point field goal percentage defense (.417). Queta rewrote the USU single-season block record this season with his 73 total blocks, speeding past the previous record of 59 set during the 2000-01 season by Shawn Daniels. Queta is the sixth Aggie to be named the conference freshman of the year, joining Greg Grant (Big West, 1983), Kendall Youngblood (Big West, 1989), Bryon Ruffner (Big West, 1991), Jaycee Carroll (Big West, 2005) and Koby McEwen (Mountain West, 2017). Queta is only the second player in school history to be named the conference defensive player of the year, joining Daniels, who was named the Big West Defensive Player of the Year in 2001.
Queta recorded a MW-freshman record six blocks against Fresno State on Jan. 9, also marking the third-most blocks in a single game in school history and the most by an Aggie since the 2007-08 season. Queta is the second Aggie in the last three years to earn Mountain West Freshman of the Year, joining McEwen, who earned the award during the 2016-17 season.
USU begins its run in the Mountain West Tournament this week, facing the winner of seventh-seeded New Mexico (13-17, 7-11) and 10th-seeded Wyoming (8-23, 4-14) in a quarterfinal game on Thursday, March 14, at 7 p.m. (MT).