Thursday, January 1, 2009
Updated: August 6, 4:18 PM ET
Land of milk, honey and high-percentage jump shots
By Kyle Whelliston
Special to ESPN.com
LOGAN, Utah -- The Cache Valley is tucked away in the Beehive State's uppermost rectangle, ultrafertile lands nestled in the foothills of high, snow-capped mountain peaks. Despite Utah's status as one of the most arid states in the nation, this northern region overflows with milk, grains and fruit.
The local university, formerly known as the Agricultural College of Utah, offers bountiful yields of other kinds. In recent years, Utah State has been college basketball's leading and most consistent exporter of baskets by the bushelful.
"We've had a lot of kids who can really shoot the ball," said coach Stew Morrill, whose 2007-08 team became just the fourth in NCAA history to lead the country in the percentage made for both field goals (51.4) and free throws (79.2 percent). "We've been blessed with a lot of skilled kids, and Utah's a great basketball state. I don't know if people really realize that."
Another generally unrealized fact is that despite losing all-time leading scorer Jaycee Carroll and his career 2,522 points to graduation, the Aggies -- featuring seven Utahns -- are leading the nation in floor shooting once again. With a scorching 12-1 start, which includes a signature win over recent Gonzaga-beater Utah, the program is poised to earn its 10th straight season with 23 or more wins (the Zags and Kansas are the only other two with active streaks of nine). With a strong season in the WAC, Utah State likely will capture its 10th consecutive postseason bid.
Morrill's program is one of just five to win three-quarters of its games since the turn of the century, and that has been thanks in large part to its consistently superb shooting. This year, the Aggies are converting a Division I-best 52.3 percent of their opportunities, including 59 percent of shots from inside the arc.
"We always take extra shots in practice; we work on our free throws all the time," the gravel-voiced coach said before pausing. "But there's a lot more to it than that."
The Aggies' shooting secrets can't be found in the local water, the milk or even the area's renowned curds -- orange globs of cheesy goodness so fresh they squeak under your teeth. Deep within the tunnels and corridors of Dee Glen Smith Spectrum is the Aggies' team room, a white-walled sanctuary with stadium seating. Beneath a long list of the school's postseason accomplishments in bold blue paint, each player's seat is adorned with a 2-inch thick playbook that's as thick as any NFL team's.
And those binders are chock-full of ways to get the open looks and easy shots for which Utah State has become known across the West.
"Learning this system is almost like taking a class," said 6-foot-7 sophomore Tai Wesley, who's second on the team with 12.8 ppg but stands 10th in the nation with a remarkable 71.3 percent field goal percentage. "We have to remember a lot of plays. For example, we have this one play where everything goes on timing. I make my move when one guy gets to a certain point on the floor and not a second before or after, and if I don't set my screen at the exact moment, the whole thing is busted and everybody gets lost."
If that weren't enough, Utah State adds another unique layer of complexity. During games, Morrill stands on the sideline with arms folded -- a mountain of a man at 6-5 -- as associate head coach Tim Duryea and basketball operations director Lance Beckert sit behind him on the bench. Each holds a thick set of indexed flip cards. Either set, red or blue, represents the actual plays being run at any given time, and the "hot" set can change at a timeout's notice. The Aggies on the floor always know what to execute, but opposing teams trying to steal signals are lost in an endless blur of "Cross Iso," "24," "Monster Right" or any of the hundreds of possible flip-card combinations.
|Utah State coach Stew Morrill is trying to guide the Aggies to their 10th straight postseason. |
"I don't think anyone else uses two sets," said Duryea, a Morrill assistant for eight-plus seasons. "We use it in practice from day one, so it becomes a way of life when it comes to playing offense at Utah State. The assistants that have held the cards in the past have a running joke that on nights when we aren't shooting so well, those cards get a whole lot heavier."
This week, Utah State hosted a three-day round-robin event (sponsored by the area's leading curd producer), and the cards were as light as air. After breezing past Howard and Houston Baptist with 50 percent team shooting performances, the Aggies used a 56 percent conversion rate late Wednesday night to overcome a rebounding deficit against Wyoming, pulling away from the Mountain West's Cowboys in overtime.
Helped by one of the top home-court advantages in the land (the Aggies are 150-12 here in the Morrill era) and a fan base that nearly filled the Spectrum despite the university's holiday break, USU swept the mini-tourney with its newfound depth. The three-day, three-win effort was highlighted by event MVP Jared Quayle, an emerging junior guard who turned in two double-doubles.
"We've gone from a situation where all our offense ran through Jaycee, to having four solid double-figure scorers," Duryea said.
The team's top point producer is a broad-shouldered 6-9 redhead named Gary Wilkinson, the WAC's preseason player of the year and one of 50 nationally on the Naismith Award watch list. Utah State's senior leader is averaging 17.1 ppg (on very Aggies-like 62.6 percent shooting), and although Wilkinson isn't letting outside attention go to his head, he isn't above competing with his own teammates.
"There's definitely some GPA trash talk," said Wilkinson, who boasts a 4.0 average and was recently placed on a 30-member short list for NCAA Division I student-athlete of the year honors. "Anything under a 3.5, I say get that weak stuff out of here."
"We have really, really smart guys; there isn't anyone on our team who's under a 3.0," Wesley said. "But yeah, Gary brags a lot and tells everybody about how smart he is. Right now, I have a 3.6. But I'm OK with it, I know I have a better basketball IQ."
"I'll definitely give him that," Wilkinson yielded. "I didn't play high school ball, so I never learned post play when I was growing up. Everything I know about playing in the paint, I learned from watching and being around Tai Wesley."
We've had a lot of kids who can really shoot the ball. We've been blessed with a lot of skilled kids, and Utah's a great basketball state. I don't know if people really realize that.
Most seniors would never give sophomores such high praise and credit, but Utah State's not your average team. Wilkinson took an unconventional path to Division I basketball: Not only is he one of five junior college transfers on the Aggies' roster but he served a two-year Mormon mission to Canada. His age and experience -- at 26, he's one of the oldest players in the country -- have helped him surmount the hurdles and challenges juco players often fail to overcome during the transition from a two-year to a four-year school.
But in Morrill's complex system, which focuses on inside-out play, four-year players often have a marked advantage, which is enhanced by the general advanced maturity and intelligence of the squad as a whole. The Aggies' average age is 21, and only one player (freshman guard Deremy Geiger) was born in the 1990s.
"When I got here, my head was spinning," said Wesley, 22, who traveled to Mexico on his two-year LDS mission. "Freshmen almost never start with this system. I took a redshirt, and that helped me a lot. When you come in as a freshman, you have time to learn how things work. The two-year players, on the other hand, have to understand everything right away."
But with careful selection, Utah State has had much more success in the juco market than most teams. A mix of two-year and four-year players is a throwback to the program's days in the Big West, a California-centric league in which acceptance of such transfers is very common. Morrill won that conference five times in his seven tries before the Aggies moved up to the tougher Western Athletic Conference, which until recently was a perennial multibid league. After its epic struggle with Pacific in 2005, which resulted in a rare two-bid season for the Big West, Utah State didn't miss a beat upon entry to the WAC, capturing an NCAA at-large bid in 2006 with a stellar 23-8 record.
And amid all the seamless transitions and winning seasons, the Aggies' bench boss has stuck around longer than he originally thought he would.
"I've always thought that these head coaching jobs were five- to seven-year gigs," said Morrill, who previously led Montana and Colorado State. "And here I am, on my 11th year here. I've seen four football coaches, so I know how fast things can turn."
That's not likely to happen anytime soon in men's hoops. Sure, all the program's success -- the gaudy win totals, the annual trips to the NCAA or NIT, and the academics-first image Utah State basketball conveys -- makes Morrill a regular target during summer discussions around the country. Every offseason, as the coaching carousel spins, his name is brought up in connection with any number of high-paying power-conference jobs, but Morrill remains steadfastly loyal to the land of milk, honey and easy buckets.
"Money isn't everything," said 56-year old Morrill. "I'm from Utah; my family is all within a few hours' drive; and the school has been very good about taking care of me financially. I can't say I'd never say no to an offer that felt right, but in my experience, what those schools are looking for is somebody who's young and slick. I'm neither."
Kyle Whelliston is a contributor to ESPN.com.
|Despite losing all-time leading scorer Jaycee Carroll to graduation, Gary Wilkinson and Utah State are off to a 12-1 start.|