LOGAN — The Utah State Aggies, picked to finish ninth in the Mountain West Conference in the preseason under first-year head coach Craig Smith, are in the midst of one of the most stunning turnarounds in college basketball this season.
The story is well known by now. After five straight sub-20 win campaigns, the Smith-led Aggies have been dominant enough to win 25 of their 31 games this year, culminating in a share of the regular season conference title, four conference awards and almost certainly a bid to their first NCAA Tournament since 2011 — as a possible chance to play at Vivint Arena looms.
Yet all of that tells only part of the story. The other part — only slightly less well known — is how the Aggies have engineered such a turnaround in just one season, and that’s been largely because of defense.
Few teams in college basketball, if any, are as stingy as the Aggies this season. At 96.1 points per 100 possessions, the Aggies currently sit at 46th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, up from 165th (104.7) last season, according to kenpom.com.
Utah State has also gone from 230th (51.9) to 22nd (46.5) nationally in opponent effective field goal percentage this season. The Aggies did this much like Smith did in his final season at South Dakota in 2017-18. He built a defense that highlights the strengths of his personnel.
It starts with freshmen center Neemias Queta, who at 6-foot-11, is the linchpin of the Aggie defense. A Portugal native, Queta is blocking 10.6 percent of shots when on the floor this season — good enough for 20th in the country — and is the biggest reason why Aggie opponents are converting just 47.3 percent of shots at the rim, which ranks second nationally.
The presence of Queta — both the Mountain West’s Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year — and his 7-foot-5-inch wingspan allows the Aggies to dare opponents to drive to the rim and coaxes them into taking the kinds of two-pointers USU welcomes.
As a result, Aggie opponents are shooting just 41.7 percent on two-pointers (fourth nationally) on a steady diet of contested shots at the rim and mid-range jumpers.
“He covers up a lot of mistakes, there’s no doubt about that,” Smith told the Deseret News in February. “He anchors our defense and is an eraser at the rim. And it’s not only the amount of shots that he’s blocked, but the amount of shots that he affects.”
Indeed, with Queta brooding around the rim, it’s become routine for teams to drive-and-kick to shooters on the perimeter rather than finish over his length. This season, 3-pointers account for almost 40 percent of opponents’ shots — an indication that the “Queta effect” is a real phenomenon.
To counteract this, teams have sought to pull Queta out to the 3-point line on high pick-and-rolls, but the freshman has proved surprisingly nimble for his size. Late in the shot clock, he’s an adequate defender against smaller players in space. And almost anywhere on the court, he’s never more than a step or two away from recovering or providing help to an overmatched teammate, capable of both altering a shot and cleaning up a miss all in the same play.
“First of all, he has all of the physical attributes — just his sheer size and the way he moves,” Smith said. “He’s very long, plays really hard and he’s got good feet and good hands. And he just has a good sense of the game.”
But it isn’t just Queta who is making an impact on the defensive end. USU’s backcourt, one of the tallest in the nation, has also been a factor. With Sam Merrill, Diogo Brito and Brock Miller all standing taller than 6-foot-5, the trio can switch defensive assignments when playing alongside each other and never be at a disadvantage for size in the resulting matchup.
This is, in part, how the Aggies forced Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline of Nevada to shoot a combined 9-of-34, including 2-of-15 from three, in their 81-76 upset of the Wolfpack earlier this month.
“That kid’s relentless. He’s so good,” Smith said of Merrill, the Mountain West Conference’s Player of the Year, at the time. “People want to talk about his offense … but what people miss the boat on is his defense.”
Brito, who received three votes for the conference’s sixth-man of the year, admitted that it was defense-by-committee on Caroline that night.
“I think four or five guys were on him,” he said. “We just stayed in front of him and made him work for his shots.”
Can Utah State do it again this week, should a rematch unfold? It remains to be seen. After all, Nevada blitzed the Aggies 72-49 when they first met back in January, so there is some reason to be skeptical of their chances.
But still, while there’s no telling what could happen in the conference tournament. Suffice it to say that if their defense is here to stay, the Aggies have the look of a team that’s ready to do big things when the time comes.
Follow Dillon on Twitter @dillondanderson.