Can USU’s Stew Morrill stay among top 50?

People in Utah already knew this.

Now plenty of others know, too.

Utah State basketball coach Stew Morrill has been named among the top 50 coaches in the nation by ESPN. He is one of two Mountain West Conference coaches to make the list, the other being San Diego State’s Steve Fisher (18).

Deseret News photo

Deseret News photo

It’s an interesting time to watch USU basketball. In the Aggies’ first year in the Mountain West, they went 18-14 overall, 7-11 in conference, finishing eighth.

Against the conference’s Big Three — San Diego State, New Mexico and UNLV — they went 0-7.

As Eamonn Brennan of ESPN wrote in 2012: “Over the next five years, the real costs and benefits of conference realignment will play out in Logan, Utah, where an excellent but underrated program is set to step into the big leagues. Where Morrill and Co. go from here remains to be seen, but the effects of that evolution — or lack thereof — will be fascinating to observe.”

Morrill has had some player turnover,  and playing against UNLV, New Mexico and San Diego State hasn’t been easy. That doesn’t detract from what he did previously. He has won 20 or more games 18 times in his career and is 384-133 in at USU. At the same time,  he’ll have to step up recruiting in the new league. In the WAC he typically built a solid base using hard-working players from the Intermountain area, combined with a few undersized but talented California recruits. Now he’ll need to get an occasional NBA-level player – something that has rarely happened. (Former Aggie Jarred Shaw will play with Charlotte in the Las Vegas summer league this year.)

Desmond Penigar played 89 minutes in 2003-04 for Orlando, but the last Aggie to stick for more games was Glenn Hansen, who survived part of three seasons, beginning in 1975.

So the bar for the highly successful Morrill has raised. He’ll not only have to up his game on the court, but on the recruiting trail, if his successful run is to continue. Recruiting against Sun Belt cities, on a bigger stage, is a tough assignment. This is the biggest test yet for the coach they call Big Stew.

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