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MWC basketball preview: Utah State brings tradition

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the seventh of an 11-part series previewing the University of New Mexico’s 10 Mountain West Conference opponents, and its nonleague opponents. The order of MWC teams will publish daily in reverse order of the preseason media poll. To see list of all previews, CLICK HERE.

The Utah State Aggies, and their stellar home-court advantage in Logan, Utah, may sneak up on fans of their new Mountain West Conference rivals this season, but they won’t sneak up on the coaches of the league.

One by one, coach after coach in the early October MWC media conference, said they fully expect the Aggies to instantly become one of the toughest outs in the league. That respect is due in part to coach Stew Morrill, the 61-year-old who has won 73.9 percent of his games over the past 15 seasons coaching at Utah State.

Expecting success makes sense for a program that is one of only five in the nation to win at least 21 games in each of the past 14 seasons. Utah State joins Gonzaga, Duke, Kansas and Syracuse as teams with that distinction.

But Morrill knows his team is in for a wake-up call this season, leaving the depleted Western Athletic Conference for its new league.

And in case his team doesn’t realize it, all the coach has to do is remind them that the Nevada Wolf Pack team that won 28 games in the WAC two years ago and annually competed with USU and New Mexico State for league titles finished in last place in the MWC a season ago.

“It did surprise me,” Morrill said of Nevada’s belly flop in it’s first year in the MWC. “When you look at that, you kind of swallow hard and say OK. It goes back to having to prove you can compete, and we know we have to go prove some things.”

The Aggies were picked to finish fifth in the 11-team MWC this season. Morrill said that alone should let his players know they’re in a much more competitive conference after years of being picked to finish at or near the top of the WAC.

Utah State boasts one of the hidden gem home-court advantages in college basketball in the 10,270-seat Dee Glen Smith Spectrum in Logan. With apologies to “The Show,” the chest-thumping student section at San Diego State, the bar for student section intimidation out west was set by the Aggies long ago.

On the court, the Aggies have some talent to work with, too.

After a 2012-13 season derailed by injuries, a trio of seniors will lead the charge for Utah State in 6-foot-10 center Jarred Shaw (14.2 points, 8.4 rebounds per game in 2012-13), 6-3 guard Spencer Butterfield (12.2 points, 6.6 rebounds) and 6-4 shooting guard Preston Medlin (16.3 points, 3.2 assists).

In Medlin, Morrill thinks he has one of the best guards in a guard-heavy league.

“He’s an old-school basketball player,” Morrill said. “He shoots it. He creates for other players. He can play 2. He can play some 1. …

“He’s not a physically imposing guy, but he is a lot more athletic than you might think. He’s quick. He’s fast. He really knows how to use screens. We really run him off a lot of screens, and he’s good at it.”

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