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Here's why CSU fans should still believe in Niko Medved after another first round exit in the Mountain West Tournament

Justin Michael Avatar
March 10, 2020

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — Slow and steady wins the race.

It’s been two years since Tim Miles’ former assistants were hired back into the Mountain West. Niko Medved obviously returned to Moby Arena, while Craig Smith, who spent five years under Miles at CSU (2008-2012) and then two at Nebraska (2013-14), was hired to replace Tim Duryea at Utah State.

Over the last two years, the two programs have had fairly different experiences. The Rams have gone 12-19 and 20-11 in the regular season under Medved — and in two trips to the Mountain West Tournament, CSU has been bounced in the first round both times.

Meanwhile, Smith has led the Aggies to regular season records of 25-6 and 23-8 — and is currently 6-0 in the Mountain West Tournament with back-to-back titles to his name.

Despite the difference in success over the last two years, at this point, the Ram faithful should still very much be excited about the future of the program. Taking nothing away from the incredible job Smith has done in Logan, UT., the reality is he walked into a much more stable situation than Medved.

In 2017-18, the season before Smith arrived, the Aggies finished 17-17 overall and went 8-10 against the league. While they were fairly inconsistent with a young core, Utah State was competitive in every big game they played and even managed to reach the semifinals of the MW Tournament.

That squad ended up losing Koby McEwen, who transferred to Marquette but Sam Merrill, Diogo Brito, Brock Miller and Abel Porter were all already on the roster prior to Smith being hired. So, he was walking into a pretty good situation even before Neemias Queta signed due to his relationship with Aggies assistant Eric Peterson .

Had Queta chosen to attend Creighton, St. Mary’s, Texas Tech or any of the other programs that showed interest in the 7-foot-0 center, the Aggies likely would not have been so dominant.

Considering the rest of the group, they probably still would have been a pretty good team — there’s no doubt that adding a true NBA prospect only propelled them that much more, though. Not to mention that Merrill developing into a stone cold killer didn’t hurt the cause either.

On the flip side, Medved inherited a group that finished 11-21 overall and went 4-14 against the league in 2017-18. Of the 10 active scholarship players on the roster that season, six ended up transferring out.

Making things worse, if you look at the guys that chose to stay, Nico Carvacho was really the only player from the 2017-18 team that bought into what the new staff was trying to establish. After a bumpy first season, a few guys from the 2018-19 roster like Kris Martin and Hyron Edwards Jr. each found their way as well. But the main point to take away from this is that Medved essentially had to completely rebuild his roster from the ground up.

If Medved had a guy like Merrill running the offense in year one, the Rams might have finished closer to .500. If he even had a point guard that remotely bought into him that season or a key role player or two like Brito or Porter, CSU would have definitely at least been more consistently competitive.

The encouraging thing for Ram fans is that as long as there are no significant staff changes, major injuries or transfers, there is a legitimate argument that CSU should be the better team moving forward.

As we saw this season, when the team is actually committed to the system, the Rams are a group that can contend with anyone. This isn’t going to change — especially now that there is a young nucleus of talent that benefitted from a ton of playing time. Roughly 68 percent of CSU’s points were scored by underclassmen this season. And four of CSU’s five leading scorers were either freshmen or sophomores.

It’s definitely going to be difficult to replace Nico Carvacho — the ‘Big Chile’ is one of the most dominant rebounders of all-time and the leader of the locker room. All things considered, though, Medved and the staff have really done a great job building up the roster with guys that can make an immediate impact.

On the other hand, assuming Queta goes pro, Utah State is losing three of its four leading scorers after this spring. Justin Bean will likely be lack for his junior year but the Aggies have a ton of production to replace.

Nobody is saying that Utah State is going to completely fall off the map or anything like that. According to 247Sports, the Aggies’ 2019 class was the best in the league so even if the recruiting rankings are flawed, it’s evident that Utah State should expect to have some up-and-coming talent take the next step in 2020-2021.

Of course, the big key to watch for Utah State is whether or not someone tries to poach Smith away. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Smith’s original contract was worth $3.5 million over five years. The deal started with Smith making a base salary of $650,000 in year one and is scheduled to escalate by $25,000 each season.

If a power program like Minnesota were to move on from Richard Pitino, they could consider someone with Big-10 ties (Tim Miles) or someone with local ties (Medved). That said, coming off of another NCAA Tournament appearance, Smith could actually be the hottest target of them all — particularly with how easy it would be for someone to double or even triple his salary.

Utah State could always try and give Smith a pay bump to persuade him to stick around. But he already makes significantly more than Duryea ($379,00) ever made with the Aggies so it seems unlikely that USU would be even be able to make an offer in the ballpark of a bigger school.

Playing devil’s advocate, if the Gophers or someone else were to hire away Medved instead, it would obviously change the conversation. However, when considering Medved has not yet reached the NCAA Tournament or even the NIT in his three stops as a head coach, and the fact that his buyout is nearly double what Smith’s is, it leads me to think that Smith would be the No. 1 target for major programs trying to steal a coach on the rise.

Regardless of how the next couple of years play out, it’s clear that both schools made great hires. Medved and Smith are examples of coaches that go about it the right way and really know to bring the best out of their players.

Smith has held the advantage out of the gate. Time to see if Medved can win the marathon.

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