Column: It's pointless to compare Craig Smith and Niko Medved in Year 1
The Utah State Aggies (24-6, 14-3) are coming off of a momentous victory over the Nevada Wolfpack (26-3, 13-3) and have now put themselves in position to make an appearance in the NCAA Tournament under first-year head coach Craig Smith.
With Utah State’s early success, some Colorado State fans have raised questions about why the Rams have not not achieved the same success in Year 1 of the Niko Medved era. To these individuals, I urge you take a deep breath and consider the following:
The Neemias Queta Effect
Jordan Caroline, Caleb Martin and Jalen McDaniels dominated the preseason conversation about who in the Mountain West will have the best career at the next level. While all of three of these players are still viewed as promising NBA prospects, multiple coaches in the league have told me that Neemias Queta is easily the No. 1 NBA prospect in the MW.
As a 6-foot-11, 225-pound, 19-year-old with a reported 7’5” wingspan, Queta is basically a living model of what NBA scouts are looking for. His absurd length and quick feet make him extremely tough to match up with defensively and he’s increasingly becoming a more dominant defender with each game that he plays.
After struggling with foul trouble early in the season, Queta has been able to increase his minutes by picking and choosing when to aggressively contest shots. The impact has been palpable as the big man has played 28 or minutes in 10 of the Aggies’ 18 conference games thus far and leads the league with 2.4 blocks per game.
With Queta and Sam Merrill on the floor, the Aggies are going to be a handful for literally any team in the country—just ask Eric Musselman. So, while Smith does deserve an enormous amount of credit for the phenomenal job that he has done in his first season, especially when it comes to getting everyone to buy in, the reality is he’s extremely fortunate to have guys like Queta and Sam Merrill on the roster.
Queta was recruited by USU assistant coach Eric Peterson last spring and the Aggies weren’t even sure if he’d be able to clear the obstacles necessary to qualify. Merrill is a veteran that was already on the roster when Smith was hired.
In a different universe, Merrill could have opted to move on when when Tim Duryea was fired last March and he likely would have had a variety of intriguing suitors, considering he was coming off of a breakout sophomore campaign. Queta could have easily opted to go to Creighton, Texas Tech or any of his other suitors as well. And without these two guys, the odds of Utah State winning 20+ games in 2018-19 would have been slim to none.
Context is Everything
Similarly to when Larry Eustachy took over for Tim Miles at CSU, Smith has the perfect combination of experience and talent on the roster to make noise in the MW. More importantly though, Smith isn’t trying to rebuild a program that has been synonymous with chaos and disfunction for the last five years.
Under Eustachy, CSU reached one NCAA Tournament and nearly won the league in two different seasons. But there’s a reason that multiple athletic directors had to look into his conduct and the program had to deal with a scandalous headline just about every single season. Not to mention the fact that Eustachy rarely recruited high school players and burned bridges with local coaches around the state.
Eustachy may be gone—but expecting Medved and Co. to be able to come in and immediately change the program’s culture—while also getting a roster that has never previously played with any sort of structure to completely change their collective identity is a bit much.
We’ve seen the potential of the program at times, like in victories over Boise State, Fresno State and a season sweep over Air Force. But we’ve also seen the Rams struggle to be consistent on the defensive end and balance their emotions when things get tough. Generally these are traits of immature and inexperienced teams and CSU is both.
Keeping all of this in mind, Year 2 of the Medved era could potentially be really special. Assuming Nico Carvacho returns for his senior season, and he would be wise to do so, the Rams will have one of the best rebounders in the country on the roster. CSU will also have Kendle Moore and Adam Thistlewood coming back, both of which have played significant roles as true freshmen. What’s more, Medved’s staff signed one of CSU’s best recruiting classes in years, with multiple guys expected to come in and make an impact.
Both programs hired up-and-coming coaches that fit perfectly in their current roles. With guys like Medved and Smith in the Mountain West, it’s exciting to think about the future of the league. But comparing their successes in the first year on the job accomplishes nothing. These coaches walked into two completely different scenarios and have vastly different rosters.
Maybe down the line, there will be a point where you can accurately and fairly compare their results. Until that point, just sit back and enjoy the ride. Part of what makes college basketball so exciting is the possibility of mid-majors like CSU or USU wreaking havoc in the NCAA Tournament. As CSU assistant Ali Farokhmanesh explained, it’s not an easy process to get to that point though.