LOGAN — Once the NCAA made it official that college athletes would be granted an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Brandon Horvath figured he had two options.
One, stay close to home at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for a fifth season, or two, hire an agent and try to secure a professional basketball opportunity, likely somewhere overseas.
So when the 6-foot-10 forward suddenly found himself relocating to the Intermountain West this summer, it came as a surprise, even to him.
“I knew about Utah State, but I didn’t really know where it was,” Horvath admitted. “I mean, I had never even seen a mountain before.”
Now snugly nestled inside of Cache Valley between the Bear River and Wellsville mountain ranges, Horvath’s view has changed dramatically. However, thanks to following former UMBC head coach Ryan Odom and his staff across the country, Horvath is also in his comfort zone at the same time.
“What we’ve been doing so far, I’ve been doing that for the last four years,” Horvath said of the Aggies’ summer workouts, “and I’m just kind of trying to help speed up the process of adjusting for the new guys.”
For Horvath, who was joined at USU by former Retriever teammate RJ Eytle-Rock, it “wasn’t a hard decision” to leave UMBC, even though it’s less than an hour away from his hometown of West River, Maryland.
“Coach Odom called me and said, ‘You do what you’ve got to do, but you’ve got a spot here,’” Horvath recalled, “and I couldn’t pass up playing this level of basketball for one more year. My dad and I talked about how hard I had worked to just be complacent. This is a big jump in quality of basketball, but I’m ready for the challenge, for sure.
“And I’m easy to put anywhere. I don’t really need much. Just a room, some food and basketball, and I’m pretty much good.”
Horvath says that after his end-of-the-season interview with Odom, he had pretty much decided to stay at UMBC and pursue a master’s degree after completing a bachelor’s in economics. But when Utah State tabbed Odom as Craig Smith’s replacement in early April, he briefly put his name in the transfer portal before deciding to finish up his collegiate career at USU without the benefit of ever visiting the campus due to COVID-19 restrictions.
In turn, within a couple of days, Horvath (13.1 ppg, 8.7 rpg in 2020-21) had also helped convince Eytle-Rock (14.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.5 apg in 2020-21) to join the Aggies, as well, leaving Odom with his top two scorers from a Retrievers team that finished 14-6 and tied for first place in the America East Conference.
“RJ and I are really, really good friends. We got to know each other over the years for sure,” Horvath said of the 6-4 guard from London. “He was kind of on the fence as well, just because everything kind of happened out of nowhere. But I talked to him, told him things are going to be different for sure moving across the country, but the coaches are there, and he also likes the coaches, so I just kind of assured him that this is the right move, and he came to his senses and picked it as well.”
While Horvath and Eytle-Rock were both first-team All-America East selections last season, it remains to be seen how their skills will translate to the Mountain West. In 2020-21, the MW was 10th in the RPI rankings, while the America East was 23rd, a spot above the Big Sky Conference.
But Horvath’s game has continued to improve throughout his career, and the Aggies certainly have additional weapons like returning starters Justin Bean and Brock Miller to help shoulder the offensive load.
And Horvath, who was 6-foot-7 and only weighed 167 pounds when he first showed up at UMBC after a year at a prep school in Connecticut, is now three inches taller, weighs 215 pounds and boasts an awful lot of playing experience.
During his career at UMBC, Horvath started 54 games and played in 113 while knocking down 45.9% of his field-goal attempts, including 95 of 298 (31.9%) from 3-point range.
“I like Brandon’s game; we’ve been sort of been like a duo the past two years now,” Eytle-Rock said. “Last year he was coming off ball screens and shooting behind it, so that’s something you don’t really see a lot of. He can put the ball on the floor, and he can score inside. Last year he was like a dominant force inside, and I feel like he got doubled pretty much every game.
“He’s a high-energy guy who is going to make the right plays, and he also shoots the ball pretty well. I look forward to playing with him again.”
Before he reached out to Horvath, Odom says he wanted to make sure that he and Bean could play on the floor at the same time. After seeing Bean play a little bit, he says he was convinced that that combination would work and gave Horvath a call.
“Justin is skilled. He is way more skilled than I was anticipating,” Odom admitted. “Obviously he’s known as a guy who plays with a high motor, rebounds and just outworks the opponent, but he can also put the ball on the deck and finish around the rim, and he’s a mid-range shooter. He’s more of everything.
“I wanted to make sure that he and Brandon could see the court together, and I’m confident that that can happen.”
The Aggies, of course, just lost 7-foot center Neemias Queta to the Sacramento Kings in the NBA draft, so regardless of who was hired to replace Smith, the team was going to take on a drastically different look this season.
But so far, Horvath says he likes what he sees of his new team.
“I think we’re doing fine,” he said. “I don’t really know how we stack up against the rest of the conference, of course, but we’re very skilled for sure. We’ve got a lot of pieces, and I think we’ll be very good.”
Horvath, who was born in Akron, Ohio, but moved to Maryland when he was 6 years old, longs to return to the NCAA Tournament before his career is complete. He was just a freshman on the Retrievers team that made college basketball history in 2018 by beating the top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers as a No. 16 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“We didn’t even know what to do after we won,” said Horvath, who didn’t play in that 74-54 upset but saw action in 31 other contests in 2017-18. “Then we didn’t sleep — no one slept. It was just like media the next two days, so it’s kind of all a blur, to be honest.
“It was just crazy, and that was my first year in college, so I was like, ‘Wow, this is how it’s going to be every year.’ But then, obviously, that’s not how it was.”
But Horvath said he did watch the Aggies lose to Texas Tech in last season’s NCAA Tournament after picking USU to pull off the upset of the Red Raiders. And while he’s working on a master’s degree in applied business, Horvath will get to make at least one “business trip” back home to Maryland this year when Utah State plays Richmond on Nov. 12 at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis.
“That’s like 30 minutes from where I live, so my family will be able to see me,” Horvath said. “But they’re also very excited to come out here and see something new.”
While the mountains of Utah, the Spectrum and the uniforms might be new for Colleen and Brian Horvath, they’ll also see pretty much the same coaches and one of their son’s teammates out on the court, far away from the metropolitan area known as “Charm City.”
“They’re just a great coaching staff,” Horvath said of Odom and his assistants. “I can’t say enough good things about them. I mean, it says a lot that I followed them across the country, while RJ followed them around the world, basically.
“They’re just great guys, and Coach Odom has been successful everywhere he’s went, so I think he’ll be good here as well.”