Point Guard Brockeith Pane jumps for the basket on Saturday, January 7 against Nevada. Kate Rouse DuHadway/BluePrint Magazine
By Rhett Wilkinson
The Utah State basketball team was playing just fine in their Nov. 19 home game against Southern Utah, leading the Thunderbirds early in the first half. Brockeith Pane was finding Preston Medlin for open looks from the outside and Morgan Grim was humming inside the paint.
But in one play, the collective good feelings on the court and among the Aggie fans in the Spectrum suddenly changed when star forward Brady Jardine started running up the arena’s northwest hallway and into the locker room.
The 6-7 Idaho native had just suffered an injury to his right foot, and while he was hopeful to return to the court by the time his team faced 2011 NIT champion Wichita State Dec. 10, it never happened. The ligaments are not expected to be healed enough to let Jardine play until late February at the earliest, leading the 2006 Gatorade Player of the Year to opt to sit out the rest of the season in hopes of returning for a fifth season in 2012-13. Jardine can still use a redshirt since he started playing his freshman year in 2008-09 after returning from an LDS Mission in San Antonio, Texas.
With the loss of six seniors, no one expects the Aggies’ battle for winning a fifth consecutive WAC Championship to be easy. Personnel losses early this season, from swingmen Antonio Bumpus, who tore his ACL last season and re-aggravated it a November shoot-around, to Steven Thornton, who left the team weeks later due to personal reasons, only make it more difficult. With Jardine gone, is it impossible?
Stew Morrill, the 14th-year USU head coach who lays claim to the most wins of any coach in Aggie history, wasn’t quite willing to go that far. But his prognostication didn’t exactly call for sunshine and rainbows.
“I don’t want you guys to go say that we will without a doubt be the team to beat,” Morrill told the media after the Aggies throttled Fresno State 72-53 in their conference opener at the Spectrum Jan 5. “You have the favorites, Nevada and New Mexico State, then a bunch of other teams with a lot of equality, a lot of parity. For us right now, we are pretty good at some things. Are we great at anything right now? No.”
The Aggies went 8-6 in non-conference play before starting WAC action, with their best win coming against BYU in their opener Nov. 11. USU suffered a setback against Texas A&M Corpus-Christi of the lowly Southland in their first game without Jardine. It was the Islanders’ only win of the season in 13 games, through Jan. 6. The low point came two games later.
On Nov. 30, the Aggies’ 33- game home win streak, the third longest active streak in the nation at the time, abruptly ended in a double-digit loss at the hands of the Denver Pioneers. However, the Aggies have rebounded since. Their win against Fresno State followed a four-game winning streak that was snapped only by a two-point road loss at the hands of nationally-ranked Mississippi State on New Year’s Eve.
“I’m pleased that we were in the game, but we’ve had enough success in our program that we’re not going to feel good about losing a game like that,” Morrill said that evening in Starkville.
“I did tell our guys that they are the four-time defending WAC champions and that should mean something to him,” he said days later about addressing a team that not many expected to nearly snatch from the Bulldogs. “Somebody has got to take that away from us. We are still, as of right now, the champions. Hopefully that means something to our players and our fans and everyone involved.”
For Morrill, that honor hasn’t quite meant enough to his fresh-faced team, who started the season with 10 new faces out of a 17-player roster, at times since the season started in October.
“They listen and are good kids and they understand that sometimes they get out there and have a long day, or I’m not sure they want to practice as hard as I want them to,” said Morrill, who registered his 200th win in the Spectrum (at 200-14, a 93 percent winning percentage overall) on the final night of the Athletes in Action Classic against Kent State Dec. 22. “I would say that our practice habits have improved, but are they at the level of last year’s team? No. That was an experienced veteran team that knew the value of practice every single day and they won championships as a result. I tell them all the time, ‘I shouldn’t have to beg you to practice hard, I shouldn’t have to cuss you out to get you to practice hard.’”
Of course, last year’s team was simply dominant. Led by WAC MVP Tai Wesley, the 2010-11 version of USU went 30-4 and spent several weeks in the national rankings before finishing the season 25th in the Associated Press Poll after a loss in their first game of the NCAA Tournament against Kansas State.
Without Jardine, two main contributors from that group remain this season—point guard Pane and post player Grim (10.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg), whose first season on the court for USU followed two seasons for the since-fired Jim Boylen at Utah. Pane, the media pick for WAC Preseason Player of the Year, has struggled in figuring into an offense that has begun to rely more heavily in recent weeks on Medlin (15 ppg, 49.4 percent from three-point land), who played as a freshman during the 2009-10 season before redshirting last year, and Kyisean Reed (9.8 ppg), a junior college transfer from Antelope Valley (Calif.) Junior College who has repeatedly shown that he may soon threaten to jump to the moon. Pane has shot less than 38 percent from the field this season—he shot nearly 44 percent last year in three less minutes per game—for an average of 10.8 points per game, while his 3.7 assists per game come at a cost of a less than 1.3 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Morrill has mentioned throughout the season about the need to receive balanced scoring from this year’s cast, but also knows the importance of the floor general to the team’s success, in spite of his struggles to find the basket regularly this winter.
“I don’t see a game on the schedule where he doesn’t need to stay out of foul trouble,” Morrill said. “It’s like Tai in the past. When Tai Wesley wasn’t on the floor—and it happened too many times, he got better at it—we weren’t the same team. That happened to us in the NCAA Tournament last year. When Brockeith is on the floor, we’re a whole lot better. I think it will be that way all year.”
The contribution of players like Medlin and Reed have certainly helped assuage Morrill’s concerns. Medlin’s breakout game can be attributed to his team’s Nov. 26 battle at Idaho State, when the sophomore hit eight three-pointers en route to a 26-point evening. Since then, the Carrollton, Texas native has scored in double figures in 10 of the 11 games, including six contests with 20 points or more. Reed exploded against a Kent State team that Morrill regarded as a “borderline top 25 team” with 27 points, several coming on simply scintillating dunks, and followed the performance with his first career double-double against Fresno State. Despite Reed’s emerged on-court leadership role alongside Grim in the frontcourt, Morrill remains concerned with the rising star.
“He has got to play harder,” Morrill said. “He is so explosive, but he is an undersized post, so he needs to compensate for that by playing hard all the time and using his athletic ability. That is something that he knows. I have talked to him about it; I am not dogging him when we talk about it. If he would not drift and get more physical, he could really be a huge factor. He has done some really good things, don’t get me wrong, but I look at that guy and I see his potential, I just don’t see what he is doing positive, I see what he is and what he could be. For him, what he could be is not what he is right now.”
Outside of the hopes for beyond-their-years play from newcomer Danny Berger, who was supposed to be redshirting this season before Thornton left, backup posts Ben Clifford and Jordan Stone, along with small forward Mitch Bruneel and junior E.J. Farris, Reed’s challenge is one of the demanding subplots of that larger five-peat discussion that will loom over the team all the way through March.
Just don’t count on the title realization, says one particular teacher of the game.
“I think that we have shown everybody how vulnerable we are,” Morrill said. “I don’t think that the teams in the league are looking at us and saying watch out for Utah State. We have got to try and make them say that. Half way through the league we have got to hope that they are saying, ‘You know what, they are the same old Aggies.’ That’s what would be really good for us, but I don’t think they view it that way right now.”