COLUMN: A Weak Stew

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As a boastful alumnus of Utah State University, I can state emphatically that I want my beloved Aggies to win every game and competition that they engage in.

The opponent and the sport does not matter. It could just as easily be a checkers tournament against SLCC than a football game against BYU. I want my school to win. Go Aggies!

But is a win important, or relevant, if that victory comes against inferior teams? Does winning not become passe and humdrum? And, can a tendency to seek out easy wins be counter-productive to long-term success?

The obvious answer to these hideously loaded rhetorical questions is yes.

And so it is that I have brought forth this argument regarding USU’s men basketball team. In my decade of living in Cache Valley, I have seen my Aggies win a lot of games against teams not worthy of lauded praise. To be more blunt, we beat up on weaklings.

Back east, small Catholic schools that are lined up to be beaten by the powerhouses are referred to as the “Sisters of the Poor.” Here in the west, most of these minnows (European soccer term) usually have a “UC-” in their names.

This is Aggie basketball under coach Stew Morrill. Load up the schedule on easy wins and do fairly well against the conference opponents who are minnows for other schools.

But not this year.

Nope. Now, the Aggie play in the Mountain West Conference. After years of playing in the “one bid” Big West and Western Athletic conferences, USU now plants its flag in a place where bigger, more physical teams reside—and the Aggies look really bad playing them.

The days of beating up weaklings that play in 2,000 seat gyms are over. Whipping up on the slaughterhouse that was the “UC-” teams is now a feast held in November, not February. It is time for the Aggies to prove they can compete against tougher opponents—and they ain’t.

How could this be! Stew is great! He is the best basketball coach who ever walked the face of the Earth. Stew has 599 wins! Wow! But here is my question:

Who has he beaten?

A bunch of nobodies. Stew’s career record in blowouts—games decided by 20 points or more—is impressive. He is 156-25. In games decided by 5 points or less, he is 131-99. That is OK. Overtime games? He is 22-20. Meh. Against teams that are ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, Stew is 5-18. Ouch! And, in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, aka, The Dance, he is 1-9.

And before the Stew Crew throws the Aggie victories against USC and Mississippi State at me, I suggest you look at their current records. Those are big conference schools with bad records who are currently getting pummeled in their leagues.

The days of praising Stew Morrill for beating inferior teams must end. Or do they?

For years, I have suggested that Aggie basketball should do better. The overwhelming response? Stew wins. I say that the weak scheduling makes the Aggies unprepared for The Dance and disqualifies them from a higher seed…which would help them win tournament games. The counter-argument? Stew wins.

Cache Valley residents seem content to watch the Aggies bludgeon bad teams near Thanksgiving and watch other teams play once St. Patrick’s Day comes around. They don’t appear to care if the Aggies make a tournament run. Beat UC-Bakersfield and talk about how everyone is scared to play us in Logan.

Are the Aggies scrutinized in the press? The Trib has been known to take a shot or two. CacheValleyDaily.com and KVNU? Well, my boss-editor can answer to that; he is the frequent host of Aggie Talk. The Herald-Journal? Puh-leeze!

If teenage girls around the globe suffer from “Bieber Fever” then Shawn Harrison—the HJ’s sports editor and Aggie beat writer—has a chronic case of Stew Flu.

Harsh? Read what he prints. Harrison spends much more time refuting the criticisms targeted at Morrill than criticizing Morrill himself.

The narrative has changed. The Mountain West is a legitimately tough conference. And for those who say the Aggies were not prepared for the level of talent the MW contains in Year One, then allow me to ask the obvious question.

Who prepares the team? Who recruits the players? Who draws up the game plan? If Stew Morrill is such a great coach, why didn’t he adapt? This is not a new thing. The previous two seasons the Aggies looked underwhelming—and the WAC was nowhere near as good as the MW is presently.

This all leads to my most aggrieved point. Why can’t USU be the next team that shocks the country and make a magical run at the NCAA Championship? As a teenager, I saw Villanova make a championship run that is still endearing to Philadelphians. I saw Temple play anyone, anywhere, at anytime during the season—and that resulted in a billfold filled of “Elite Eight” appearances.

Why not US(U)?

In recent years, Gonzaga, Butler, Wichita State, VCU and George Mason all made memorable runs. I want to experience that as an Aggie fan. I want Cache Valley to be painted blue for the entire month of March. I want every Aggie fan to feel the tension, anticipation and excitement that comes with a run in The Dance. I want America to say, as they did with the above-mentioned teams, “Utah State? Where the heck did they come from?” To which we would reply, “Logan @#$ing, Utah!”

But we don’t do that here. And what is worse, there is very little hope that that can happen here. Not if history is a barometer for future success. All we do in Aggieland come March is watch other Cinderellas capture the hearts of America while we easily forget beating UC-Santa Barbara twice. That’s not a typo. We played the Gauchos twice this season. You forgot, didn’t you?

Stew Morrill should be given the chance to right the ship. I am just not terribly confident he can do it. If he recruits a higher level of player that can compete in the MW, and we win games, no one will be fist-pumping in glee more than I will. The problem is logic and reason compels me to doubt that will happen. As an Aggie fan, I find that disheartening and unacceptable.