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COLUMBUS, Ohio — It's been barely a year since Craig Smith took the head coach job at Utah State and his accomplishments keep going: Mountain West Conference champions, both in the regular season and the league tournament. Coach of the year. The Aggies' first NCAA Tournament bid since 2011.
And while Smith and the Aggies will try to keep the season going against Washington in Friday's first round of the NCAA Tournament (4:50 p.m. MDT, TNT), this isn't a story about looking ahead, necessarily.
It's about looking back.
Because every first-year coach arrives on campus, wondering what he has. Everyone wonders if the team he inherited will fit his "style of play."
Smith had those concerns, of course, but he also had another concern: simply speaking the same language.
The Aggies (28-6) have a roster of players from six different states and three different countries, including two of the only players in the NCAA from Portugal in Neemias Queta and Diogo Brito.
English. Spanish. Portuguese. Dutch. Utah State has players that speak all of those languages.
But they all speak the language of basketball.
"You’d better recruit people first," Smith said Thursday during the Aggies' open practice at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. "Whether that’s a young man from Utah or Oklahoma or Portugal. At the end of the day, you have to be able to identify young men who can flourish in Cache Valley, in Logan, and in your style of play."
Utah State has done that, too. Picked to finish ninth in the Mountain West in the preseason, conference player of the year Sam Merrill led Utah State to a co-championship in the regular season with Nevada, then erased the "co" in the postseason by winning three games in three days in Las Vegas.
The Aggies will even take the No. 25 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25 into the tournament.
The last one, a 64-57 win over San Diego State in the tournament title game last Saturday, was the sweetest of all. Merrill grew up a Utah State fan, the son of two Aggie graduates, passed on other offers during an electric career at Bountiful High and stayed committed during a coaching change that brought in Smith to replace departed coach Tim Duryea.
Part of why he stayed, though, is because of his teammates.
"We all come from so many different backgrounds, so it keeps us from developing a clique," said Merrill, who "When we’re hanging out together, it’s everyone together, not groups of three or four.
"Fortunately, a lot of our American players are bilingual, and I think that’s helped, too."
Basketball brings people together that you’d never meet outside of basketball. We're fortunate to have people from all over the U.S. and the world. It's a brotherhood, and people I will consider brothers for the rest of my life.
–Utah State forward Quinn Taylor
Certainly, that last part helps. Queta and Brito both speak English, and reserve Roche Grootfaam from Suriname prepped at Covenant Christian Academy in Marietta, Georgia, before attending the College of Southern Idaho prior to signing with Utah State.
But the Aggies also boast seven players who served two-year missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including foreign-speaking Merrill (Nicaragua), Quinn Taylor (Brazil), Brock Miller (Argentina) and Abel Porter (Russia).
Add a fifth, if you count Crew Ainge, who served in Louisiana.
It's easy to assimilate different players from so many different backgrounds if you've spent 1/10th of your life immersed in another culture. And that helped the Aggies establish their own culture, of Smith's style, of Logan life — and of basketball.
"We established a culture of family and togetherness at Utah State," Porter said. "I feel like it’s natural."
It's also a culture that won't soon be forgotten, regardless of Friday's outcome against the Pac 12 regular-season champs.
"Basketball brings people together that you’d never meet outside of basketball," Taylor said. "We're fortunate to have people from all over the U.S. and the world.
"It's a brotherhood, and people I will consider brothers for the rest of my life."
NCAA Tournament: No. 8 Utah State (28-6) vs. No. 9 Washington (26-8)
Where: Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio
When: 4:50 p.m. MDT
Radio: 1280 AM, 97.5 FM