Ryan Odom on filling out his Aggies roster, recruiting missionaries and building trust
Former UMBC coach, whose claim to fame is guiding the No. 16-seeded Retrievers to an upset over No. 1 seed Virginia in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, looks to add to resume in Logan
LOGAN — New Utah State head basketball coach Ryan Odom knows how to handle pressure.
On the court … and on the field.
After orchestrating a historic upset of the top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, the then-coach of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County basketball team was bestowed with numerous opportunities that come with being the coach of the first No. 16 seed to ever beat a No. 1 seed.
In addition to numerous congratulatory phone calls, national media interviews, speaking engagements and a visit to the governor’s mansion, Odom took his team to the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles, where the Retrievers were nominated for the “Best Moment” award. The entire team was also honored at a Baltimore Orioles baseball game, although Odom had to go solo when it came to throwing out the first pitch.
Fortunately, before toeing the rubber at Camden Yards, Odom was introduced to Orioles broadcaster Jim Palmer, and the Hall of Fame pitcher offered up a little free advice to the basketball coach.
“‘Here’s my advice, take it or leave,’” Odom said Palmer told him. “‘When you get out there, don’t go all the way up on top of the mound. Don’t be that guy. I’ve seen that thing go haywire on ’em before.’
“So, I said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do then.’ And I stood in the dirt — but just off the elevated side of things on the mound — and it was fine.”
Just a month into his tenure as head coach of the Aggies, it’s too soon to tell if Odom is on target thus far. But on paper, he’s thrown some balls and some strikes when it comes to putting a team together for his inaugural season with the Aggies.
At the press conference announcing his hiring on April 7, Odom stated that he wanted all of the players on the current roster to stay at USU. But within a few days, guards Rollie Worster and Marco Anthony announced that they would be following former USU coach Craig Smith to Salt Lake City.
But Odom helped offset the loss of two 2020-21 starters when two of his former UMBC players — 6-foot-10 forward Brandon Horvath and 6-3 guard R.J. Eytle-Rock — announced they had committed to transfer to Utah State. Soon afterward, 6-foot-7 forward Muzamil Ameer Hamoda, a native of Bahrain, let it be known that he was also headed to Logan after spending last season at Bridgton Academy, a prep school in Maine.
At the time Odom was interviewed late last week, he confirmed that recently returned missionary Cade Potter was also set to join the program this week and that the Aggies had just one scholarship left to fill for the 2021-22 season. However, over the weekend rumors begin to emerge that two Utes were leaving Smith’s current program to play for his former team: guard Rylan Jones and forward Norbert Thelissen.
Jones, who grew up in Cache Valley and played his freshman season at Logan High, confirmed on Twitter Monday that he was, indeed, transferring to Utah State, where his father, Chris Jones, coached under Stew Morrill before taking a job on Larry Krystkowiak’s staff. A star at Olympus High, where he played for former Aggie Matt Barnes and was twice named the Deseret News’ Mr. Basketball, Jones was a highly sought-after recruit who was slowed by a shoulder injury as a sophomore (4.4 ppg) after putting together a very promising freshman season (9.6 points, 4.5 assists) in 2019-20. Thelissen, a native of the Netherlands, held down a scholarship with the Utes in 2020-21, but stayed in Europe to accommodate NCAA rules after playing on a professional team. On Wednesday, Thelissen announced on social media that he has committed to play for Utah State.
The addition of Thelissen briefly left Utah State with 14 scholarship players for 13 spots, but news surfaced Friday that redshirt freshman forward Liam McChesney, who played just three games last season due to a leg injury, is planning to enter the transfer portal.
“We’ve just got to put the pieces together. That’s what basketball is, is making those pieces fit and getting them comfortable with one another. And that’s what the summer’s going to be all about.” — Ryan Odom
“We’ve just got to put the pieces together,” Odom said. “That’s what basketball is, is making those pieces fit and getting them comfortable with one another. And that’s what the summer’s going to be all about.”
Working in Odom’s favor, basically his entire staff from UMBC ended up following him to Logan. Nate Dixon (10 seasons), Bryce Crawford (seven seasons) and Matt Henry (three seasons) have worked under Odom for a total of 20 seasons during his two head coaching stops at UMBC and Division II Lenoir-Rhyne. And that group obviously has a significant comfort level with Horvath and Eytle-Rock, who were both America East first team all-conference honorees in 2020-21.
A native of London, Eytle-Rock led the Retrievers in scoring during his junior season, averaging 14.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists per night while shooting 47.4% from the field and going 22 for 55 from 3-point range over 20 games. Horvath, who will be a fifth-year senior, averaged 13.1 points and 8.7 rebounds while knocking down 47.5% of his shots.
“They’re veteran players, and they’ve played a high-level of competition, not at this level, but they’ve played against teams of this caliber,” Odom said of Horvath and Eytle-Rock. “We hope they’ll add a lot to our team. Does that mean they’re going to be in the exact same role? No, but they knew that coming in.”
Odom described Eytle-Rock as a bit of a combination between Worster, USU’s starting point guard the majority of last season, and Anthony, arguably the Aggies’ best perimeter defender in 2020-21. Odom also said he held off on bringing in Horvath until he has a chance to watch Justin Bean play in person.
Due to Neemias Queta’s decision to forgo his senior year and make himself eligible for the NBA draft, Bean is USU’s leading returning scorer (11.4 ppg) and rebounder (7.7 rpg).
“Justin is skilled,” Odom declared. “Like he is way more skilled than I was anticipating. Obviously he’s known as a guy who plays with a high motor and rebounds and just outworks the opponent. And he can put the ball on the deck and finish around the rim and shoot from mid-range.
“He’s more than all of everything I just said there, and so I wanted to make sure that he and Brandon could see the court together. And I’m confident that that can happen.”
The addition of Hamoda, whom Odom said, “just call him ‘Z,’” is interesting, and not just because he’s the first native of Bahrain to receive a scholarship to a school in the United States.
“Z’s a good player; he’s got a bright future,” Odom said. “He’s 6-7 and a good athlete. He’s good in the open court, and he’s got quickness on defense and good hands. Time will tell how he progresses, and how he’s able to enter the mix. That’s all got to be determined, but he’s got talent.”
As for the remainder of USU’s roster, shooting guard Brock Miller (8.8 ppg, team-high 57 3-pointers) is expected to be back, although there is certainly some concern about the back issues that limited his playing time over the last few weeks of 2020-21. Steven Ashworth is the only other returning Aggie besides Bean and Miller to average more than 12 minutes per game last year (6.1 ppg, 31 3-pointers), and he also started two games at point guard when Worster was injured.
“It’s just really impressive; it’s obviously a life-changing two years for them. If you go on a mission and do that for an extended period of time, you’re going to come back a better person and a more mature person. And I think Utah State and the basketball is the beneficiary of that, so I view that as an extreme positive for us.” — Ryan Odom
“The biggest thing I’ve learned about these guys is that there’s a maturity level that exists here that is extremely refreshing,” Odom noted. “There’s a maturity level here that doesn’t exist everywhere. And I’m really excited to coach these guys, I mean, you talk about Justin Bean, Brock Miller, Stephen Ashworth. And they’re not the only ones. When you sit in a room with them, it’s easy to tell that these are men.”
Bean, Miller and Ashworth are all a bit older than typical student-athletes because they all served two-year missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Having spent his entire coaching career near the East Coast, Odom said coaching and recruiting missionaries is something new to him, but that he was “generally familiar with what the process is.”
“It’s just really impressive; it’s obviously a life-changing two years for them,” Odom noted. “If you go on a mission and do that for an extended period of time, you’re going to come back a better person and a more mature person. And I think Utah State and the basketball is the beneficiary of that, so I view that as an extreme positive for us.”
Seven-foot Trevin Dorius, another returned missionary who backed up Queta the past two seasons, gives the Aggies depth in the frontcourt, along with 6-11 center Szymon Zapala, who saw action in just 13 games as a freshman. Guard Max Shulga, who put his name in the transfer portal shortly after Smith left, decided to stay at USU after seeing more playing time last in the 2020-21 season following Worster’s injury.
Australia native Sean Bairstow had a quiet year in 2020-21 after showing a lot of promise as a freshman, and forward Matthew Wickizer and guard Landon Brenchley are expected to round out the roster as walk-ons.
“We’ve been in the gym together, we’ve been in the office together and we’ve been outside of the office together,” Odom said of the returning Aggies. “We’ve begun the process of earning one another’s trust and just having fun together.
“We’re not winning or losing right now,” he added. “We’re just trying to develop that chemistry.”