Why new Utah State basketball coach Ryan Odom finds opportunity ‘absolutely humbling’
Here’s what you need to know about 2021-22 Aggies team that officially begins start of new era at home Tuesday night against UC Davis
LOGAN — When asked what it was like coming down the Smith Spectrum tunnel for the first time as Utah State’s new head coach, Ryan Odom stated: “It’s humbling.
“There’s a lot of folks in this profession that would love to be in my position, coaching at Utah State,” Odom said following USU’s 81-51 exhibition game victory over Montana Western on Oct. 27. “A lot of guys that have worked really hard in this profession to earn a right to have an opportunity like this. So, yeah, it’s absolutely humbling.”
“This situation is a lot different. We’re walking into a situation where the last three years have been tremendous for Utah State. We are excited to join that tradition and try to grow it.” — Utah State basketball coach Ryan Odom
Coming into the 2021-22 season, the Aggies have only had one losing campaign in the past 28 years while qualifying for 12 NCAA tournaments. And Odom, who was hired in April to replace Craig Smith following a highly successful five-year run at UMBC, is taking over a program that won 74 games during Smith’s three seasons at the helm.
“Obviously, there is tradition at Utah State,” Odom said last month. “Craig Smith and his staff did a tremendous job the last three years. It’s a true brotherhood here at Utah State. There have been great coaches throughout history, the NCAA Tournament, huge wins, the Spectrum and Spectrum magic.”
“… Generally speaking, when you walk into a situation as a new coach, it’s a rebuilding situation a lot of times or they haven’t had the success everybody desired,” Odom continued. “This situation is a lot different. We’re walking into a situation where the last three years have been tremendous for Utah State. We are excited to join that tradition and try to grow it.”
Odom’s first official opportunity to add to USU’s basketball legacy comes Tuesday night when the Aggies host UC Davis at the Spectrum. Jim Les’ squad went 10-8 during the pandemic-shorted 2020-21 season, finishing fourth in the Big West Conference.
Fortunately for the UC Davis Aggies, they won’t have to face Neemias Queta, USU’s all-time leader in blocked shots who was drafted in the second round of the NBA draft by the Sacramento Kings. The 7-foot Portuguese sensation was a force in the paint during his three seasons at Utah State, particularly on the defensive end, and Aggie fans will certainly miss Queta’s formidable presence this season.
In addition, guards Rollie Worster and Marco Anthony left the program to join Smith at Utah, and forward Alphonso Anderson transferred to Pacific. That leaves Odom with just two of the top six scorers from USU’s 2020-21 season left to work with: senior forward Justin Bean (11.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and senior guard Brock Miller (8.8 ppg).
Bean, who totaled nine double-doubles last season, is likely to better those numbers this season without having to share points and boards in the post with Queta, while Miller led the Aggies with 57 3-pointers in 2020-21 before being slowed by a back injury late in the year. Named co-captains prior to the start of the season, Bean and Miller will both be playing for their third head coach in five years at Utah State.
“They do everything right off the court,” Odom said of his senior duo. “They’re extremely polite to people. They’re caring. And most importantly, they serve their teammates. … They want to help their teammates, and that’s what leaders do.”
Sophomore guard Steven Ashworth (6.1 ppg, 76 assists) is also back for the Aggies season, along with junior guard Sean Bairstow (3.7 ppg) and junior center Trevin Dorius (2.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg), both of whom have been sidelined by injuries during preseason practices. Sophomore guard Max Shulga and sophomore center Szymon Zapala, who both saw limited playing time last season, could both be more of a factor this year.
But to help stabilize his new team’s roster, Odom brought in a couple of known quantities in senior forward Brandon Horvath (13.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg) and senior guard RJ Eytle-Rock (14.3 ppg), who were both All-America East Conference selections last season for him at UMBC.
“RJ’s a great kid; he’s really engaging and fun to talk to, even though he’s quiet,” Odom said of his 6-4, 225-pound guard. “You’ve got to kind of pull things out of him. And Brandon’s the talker, so when you walk in the locker room he’s probably the loudest one. And he’s hit the ground running with the fellas
“For me personally, it’s really cool to have them here. The fact that they wanted to come out here with us, after the change, means a lot to me personally. And I want to do what’s best for them. Certainly, I’m not going to hand them anything. They knew prior to getting here that they were going to have to earn their way. It’s kind of like starting over, but they were eager for the challenge.”
Both Horvath, who is 6-10 but prefers to play on the perimeter, and Eytle-Rock started and played well in USU’s lone exhibition game against Montana Western. Bean and Miller also started, along with new point guard Rylan Jones. A junior transfer from Utah, Jones was hampered by a shoulder injury in his second season at Utah, but is back home in Cache Valley where he spent a big part of his childhood while his father, Chris Jones, was serving as an assistant coach to Stew Morrill.
A second transfer from Utah, Norbert Thelissen, saw less than two minutes of playing time in the exhibition game. A 6-7 sophomore from The Netherlands, Thelissen never made it to Utah last season due to the pandemic, so it remains to be seen what he’s going to bring to the Aggies roster this year. The same can be said of Muzamil “Zee” Hamoda, a 6-7 freshman forward who is the first player from Bahrain to secure a Division I basketball scholarship.
Needless to say, with 10 newcomers on a team with an entirely new coaching staff, there’s a lot of questions marks that need to be answered in a hurry. After hosting UC Davis, the Aggies hit the road to play Richmond Nov. 12 in Annapolis, Maryland, and three opponents at the Myrtle Beach Invitational beginning with Penn on Nov. 18.
“We need to figure out getting the pieces together and making them fit,” he said.
Despite the huge puzzle left to be solved, the Aggies were picked to finish fifth in the Mountain West preseason poll. But it certainly feels like a huge challenge for Odom to come close to matching Smith’s inaugural season when Utah State shrugged up a ninth-place prediction and ended 28-6 while winning Mountain West regular-season and postseason titles.
“I’m eager for the challenge,” Odom declared. “I didn’t leave UMBC for just any spot; I left for a place that’s won a lot of games. And there’s pressure that goes along with that, but you can’t be afraid of it. You’ve got to be up for the challenge and go for it. And that’s just kind of how we do things.”
Jeff Hunter is a contributor for the Deseret News.