The start of the 2020-21 basketball season is fast approaching, and the Aggies are ready to go under new head coach Ryan Odom.
At least as long as they don’t have to play each other.
Despite having 18 players currently on the roster, a recent rash of minor injuries led to a lack of healthy bodies, and, ultimately, the cancellation of the annual Blue-White Scrimmage, which was slated to be held Thursday night at the Spectrum.
“We’re at 11 right now, but we have a couple of guys who are getting ready to return,” Odom said during a virtual press conference held Thursday as part of Mountain West’s men’s basketball media day. “So I felt like since we have an exhibition game next week, we were better served to focus on our practice today and just cancel (the Blue-White Scrimmage).
“And we had a closed scrimmage with another team last Saturday, so I think we’re in a good place. And our fans will be able to see us in the Spectrum next Wednesday against Montana Western.”
The Aggies, who reportedly hosted SMU during a “secret” scrimmage last weekend, will play the Bulldogs on Oct. 27 as a warmup to opening the season at home on Nov. 9 against UC Davis. That contest against the Aggies of Northern California will also serve as Odom’s official debut as USU’s head coach after being hired to replace Craig Smith, who went 74-24 during his three seasons in Logan before relocating to Utah last March.
Odom comes to Utah State after a successful run as the head coach at Maryland, Baltimore County, where he won 97 games in five years, including a mammoth upset of top-ranked Virginia in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
Odom convinced two Retrievers, senior forward Brandon Horvath and senior guard RJ Eytle-Rock, to come out West with him, and that duo represents two of the 10 players new to the Utah State program for the 2021-22 season. But despite the Aggies getting a new coaching staff and a slew of new players and losing center Neemias Queta, who was drafted by the Sacramento Kings in July, Utah State still finished a solid fifth in the Mountain West’s annual preseason poll, which was released on Wednesday.
The Aggies picked up 127 total votes to finish behind Colorado State (207, with 11 first-place votes), San Diego State (201, 7), Nevada (189, 2) and Boise State (147). Fresno State (119), UNLV (109), New Mexico (79), Wyoming (79), San Jose State (40) and Air Force (40) rounded out the remainder of the preseason poll.
No Aggie was selected for an individual preseason conference honor, but USU should clearly benefit from having Justin Bean back for his senior season after being a second-team all-Mountain West selection last season after averaging 11.4 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.
“There’s no doubt we’re going to run some things for Justin,” Odom replied when asked about Bean’s place in USU’s offense this year. “Justin has earned the right to have the ball at key times and key situations. But when you run things for certain players, they have the responsibility to do what’s right for the team.
“And so that’s all we coach Justin and his teammates on is making the right play, not only for themselves, but more importantly for our team. And try and focus on getting the best we can for Utah State.”
Odom added, “Justin has expanded his game. He’s worked hard on his jump shot this summer, and he’s shooting the ball really well right now. But he understands who he is as a basketball player, too, and what his strengths are. And I think that’s one of the cool things is having self-awareness and knowing what makes you a great player while continuing to add to your game.”
Bean, who announced after Smith’s departure and before Odom’s hiring that he was staying at Utah State regardless of who the new coach was, found the time to get married during the summer despite what he called “the hardest offseason of my basketball career.”
“I worked really hard … so I’m very excited to put everything to the test, and put all of that on the line,” Bean explained. “It’s been good to develop and increase my skills in a lot of areas, especially offensively.
“But like coach said, I just want to win games and be back at the top of the Mountain West because that’s where I feel like we can be. So whatever it takes to do that, I’m going to do that.”
Odom also noted that senior guard Brock Miller, who was hampered with back problems late in the 2020-21 season, is back to full activity.
“Brock wasn’t healthy enough to practice in April when I first got here, and then we kind of eased him back into it over the summer and he did a lot of rehab,” Odom said of Miller, who led the Aggies with 57 3-pointers last season. “Now he’s full speed and healthy and has been that way since we got back into school. So it’s been fun for me to see him out there and just his leadership ability. The guys really listen to him.”
Of the newcomers, Odom said he loves what he’s seen from 6-foot-7 freshman forward Muzamil Hamoda, a native of Bahrain who spent one year at a prep school in Maine. Known to his coaches and teammates as “Zee,” Hamoda is the first-ever basketball player from Bahrain to receive a college scholarship from a school in the United States.
“Zee surprised us. He didn’t get here until August, and we weren’t quite sure how he would interact and be able to assert himself. And I think he’s done really, really well,” Odom noted. “He’s taller than I expected. He’s athletic. And he’s a good basketball player. I think he’s got a really bright future. We’ll see how it works for him this year, but I’ve been really impressed with him.”
Odom added that junior guard Rylan Jones has impressed him since “coming back home to Logan.” The son of former USU assistant coach Chris Jones, Rylan spent one season at Logan High before his family relocated to Salt Lake City and finished his prep career at Olympus.
“He’s a special player,” Odom said of Jones, who transferred from Utah to USU after former Aggie guards Rollie Worster and Marco Anthony joined Smith in Salt Lake City. “Rylan’s a high IQ player, a point guard who’s a coach’s player and a coach on the floor for us.”
Jeff Hunter is a contributor for the Deseret News.