Challenging Season Avails Opportunities for Program’s Youngsters

By Rhett Wilkinson

BluePrint Sports Editor

Photo: No 12 Berger in USU Men Basketball vs New Mexico State Universtiy, February 11th, 2012, at the Spectrum.

If any game exemplifies what has resulted in a mediocre season for the Utah State men’s basketball team, it was March 8 in Las Vegas against Louisiana Tech. The Aggies had traveled to Sin City the day before with high morale, riding a three-game winning streak — their second-longest of the season. Considering their strong finish, many pundits figured the Aggies would offer a strong showing in the WAC Tournament and even perhaps stun Nevada in the semifinal, having played the Wolfpack close in two contests this season.

Problem was, they never got to that point.

USU stumbled mightily that evening in the Orleans Arena in a 72-70 loss to the Bulldogs. It marked a contest where their leading scorer and first-team all-WAC player, Preston Medlin, shot just 1-7 from the field for six points. Entering the playoff, the redshirt sophomore had averaged 16.3 points on 42.6 percent shooting from distance. The defeat marked the first in the tournament’s opening round in the 14-year Stew Morrill era.

Despite the dim of the stars that evening — all-WAC honorable mention Brockeith Pane had as many assists (3) to turnovers, while conference all-newcomer team member Kyisean Reed shot 1-5 with a turnover in 22 minutes — the contributions of two of the team’s freshest members were key to helping the Aggies eventually rally from a 10-point deficit. With four minutes remaining, they nearly stole the first round from the Bulldogs.

That evening, Danny Berger scored 17 points — more than 11 points above his average entering the contest — while center Jordan Stone tallied nine points and five boards in 21 minutes. His performance far exceeded his season means of 1.8 points, 2.5 rebounds and nine minutes per game. Had you told Morrill earlier in the season of the reality of the production of the sophomore and freshman, respectively, in his team’s current CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament, it’s something he admits he would hardly believe. “We had some weaknesses and holes that we thought we needed to fill, so here they are,” he said. “The more guys that can play well, the better off you are.”

Indeed, Stone and Berger, both whom were scheduled redshirt when the season’s October practices began, found themselves on a significant stage under the Vegas lights, despite the fact that Morrill had previously labeled Stone’s status to play this season “uncertain” and Berger’s “hardly in the discussion” among his coaching staff. For each of them, however, that conversation changed when injuries and lack of depth on the post and wing positions caused Morrill to shed the save-me-for-later status from each player.

Though Stone returned from a mission in New York for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Oct. 2010, his on-court influence was not fully anticipated until the 2012-13 season, when the 6-10, 270-pounder would be in the mix with Kyisean Reed, Ben Clifford and Oklahoma State transfer Jordan Shaw to take Brady Jardine’s minutes in the post. Plans certainly changed the evening of Nov. 19, when Jardine severely injured his foot, a setback that proved to be a career-ender for the three-time all-WAC academic first team member. Though Stone saw action in three of USU’s four games, including two exhibitions, before the Aggies’ game against the Thunderbirds, he suddenly regularly figured in the rotation, particularly in WAC play. Stone has shot 7-9 in 12 conference games. “During the summer, coach was still deciding if I would play this year, but I just wanted to do my best to be prepared,” said Stone, a 2008 Sky View high school graduate. “It’s been awesome to have some opportunities.”

Almost as good, he adds, is playing in front of fans. As a Cache Valley native, Stone said that he figures at least a few thousand people in the Spectrum stands on any given game knew who he was even before he set foot on campus as a student. The reminder of his local star status was enough to make his smile as sheepish as his voice is kind. “It can make me nervous, but mostly it’s exciting for me,” he said. “It just adds to the motivation I get from myself and the coaching staff and teammates.”

One of the sources of that motivation has said he’s been encouraged just by the figure he sees. “We’ve needed someone to go out there and knock people around,” said Morrill, who has previously coached at Montana and Colorado State, before the season started.  “I don’t think I’ve ever had someone that is 6-10, 270 pounds without an ounce of fat on him. I’ve had someone in similar size in Shawn Daniels (who played for USU in the late 1990s), but he always had about 25 pounds we couldn’t get off him.”

When Morrill removed Berger’s redshirt on Dec. 2, it came during a time in which fans and those within the program could tell that the season would not come close to mirroring the previous three, all of which had resulted in a trip to the NCAA Tournament. Earlier in the week, the Aggies had dropped a double-digit decision against Denver, unceremoniously ending their 33-game home winning streak, which had been the third-longest in the nation. Swingman Steven Thornton would leave the program a week later in a move that neither Medlin nor Berger feels was directly connected to Berger gradually taking more minutes at the position.

Even more than Stone, Berger suddenly found himself in the middle of the action. Just 18 days after his first game against Pacific, the Medford, Ore. native was starting on the wing. Berger scored 12 points on 4-7 shooting from distance with four assists in 33 minutes in the opening of the Gossner Foods Classic against UT-Arlington. Berger hasn’t quite matched those totals throughout the season, averaging 6.1 points and 2.3 assists in all games. The inconsistency caused Morrill, after Berger had his career game against Louisiana Tech, to say “we had been waiting on this performance all along,” citing Berger’s willingness to play aggressive, take defenders off the dribble and shoot without hesitation as refreshing elements to his game.

Berger admitted he has made an adjustment to playing starter’s minutes more quickly than he had anticipated. He returned from the Michigan Detroit LDS mission only in August of last year — meaning that, unlike Stone, he didn’t have a season to adjust — and at 6-foot-6, 175 pounds, he is reminded constantly that he needs to add meat to his frame. “Chances have sometimes come to me more quickly than I would have thought, but I’ve been excited to see what I can do,” he said. “Playing this level of college basketball has always been a dream of mine, so I’m grateful that it is here, whenever it was going to come.”

His recent return from the Wolverine State means that he has taken a few opportunities when the team has played on television to remind a “handful” of people he knows in the Midwest to see how he looks on the tube. Stone, however, hasn’t had so much of the same opportunity.

“Speaking Spanish, I usually seemed to be around soccer fans,” Stone said. “But you never know. Maybe I’ll have to try that out more.”

With an early start to his career, he and his backcourt teammate might have more than a few more opportunities to do just that.

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