LOGAN — Entering its second year under head coach Ryan Odom, the Utah State men’s basketball team can slow down a bit and focus on improvement.
The Aggies return 12 players this season, including three starters, and while moving on from a do-it-all player like Justin Bean and scoring forward Brandon Horvath could appear difficult, Odom isn’t worried.
“(The NCAA Tournament) is our goal. That’s part of the reason we came here as a staff, because we wanted to be a part of a place where that was the expectation year in and year out.” — Utah State coach Ryan Odom
“We have a lot of returners at the same time, and so the learning curve is not impeded as much,” Odom said. “You get a lot of stuff thrown at you in year one. You have to advance really fast. Now, you have a little more time to work on things in year two. For us, it’s just building on what we were able to accomplish last year.”
The Aggies were up and down last season. At times, they looked the part of a potential NCAA Tournament team, like when they beat Oklahoma to win the Myrtle Beach Invitational last November. At other times, it was tough sledding, like having four-game losing streaks in both January and February.
All said and done, Utah State finished seventh last season in the Mountain West Conference standings with an 8-10 record, while going 18-16 overall, the first season with less than 20 wins since 2017-18. The Aggies were then knocked out of the NIT in the first round by Oregon, which Odom knows is just not good enough for the program.
“(The NCAA Tournament) is our goal,” Odom said. “That’s part of the reason we came here as a staff, because we wanted to be a part of a place where that was the expectation year in and year out, while understanding that there’s a lot of other teams in the conference that have that same goal. You gotta do it when the lights come on.”
The Aggies did a lot of things right statistically in 2021-22, leading the conference by a wide margin in assists per game (17.97 apg) and having the second-highest scoring offense (73.4 ppg) in spite of its seventh-best shooting percentage from the 3-point line (34.2%).
Bean, who is now playing in the G League with the Memphis Hustle, led the Aggies in points (17.4 ppg), rebounds (9.9 rpg) and steals (1.6 spg), was second on the team in blocks and fourth in assists. Horvath was the Aggies’ second-leading scorer. They are notable losses, as Odom can attest, but he also said that USU is the kind of school where it’s always about “the next player stepping up within the program.”
“I think we probably have a more balanced team this year all around, one through five,” Odom said. ”We’ll be able to play bigger. We’ll be able to play a lineup where we can switch more. There’s a little more versatility with this particular team than even last year’s team.”
The three returning starters are senior guard Rylan Jones, who led the team in assists last season (4.5 apg), senior guard RJ Eytle-Rock and senior guard Sean Bairstow. Other notable returners include junior guard Max Shulga, who played overseas for Ukraine last summer, senior center Trevin Dorius and senior Steven Ashworth, who all played significant minutes in last season’s rotation.
“We’ve got 13-14 guys that can really play,” Jones said. “Throughout the fall practices, we’ve shown that we can be balanced through the starting five. Everybody’s making the extra pass. Every day, it’s a different guy scoring in practices. We’re taking turns, and we’re thriving off the power of the pass.”
Three players transferred to Utah State in the offseason: grad transfer forward Taylor Funk from St. Joseph, sixth-year forward Dan Akin from UMBC/Cal Baptist, and sophomore Isaac Johnson from Oregon, who is originally from American Fork, Utah. Only one true freshman joined the Aggies this season, guard Mason Falslev, a Cache Valley native, who comes to the program as a three-star recruit from nearby Sky View High.
“Mason’s been great since he first got here,” Odom said. “He got off his mission in April and joined the team pretty much right away. He’s drastically improved since that first day.”
Jones, who began his college career with the University of Utah after a standout career at Olympus High, is one of the smaller players on the team at 6-foot-1, is also confident in Utah State’s potential to play big lineups in games. The addition of Akin, Funk and Johnson give the Aggies seven players on the roster who are 6-7 or above, some of whom are wing players or even guards.
“We’re going to be really big this year,” Jones said. “Besides (Ashworth) and I, everybody’s about 6-3, 6-4 or above, so we’re just big everywhere. … We’ve got a lot of size that can help us this year.”
Prior to beginning conference play on New Year’s Eve at home against Fresno State, USU has what Odom called a “sneaky-strong schedule,” going through the first two months of the season. The Aggies will play instate against Utah Valley for the season opener on Monday, Nov 7. They also play Weber State, Utah Tech and Westminster College. While the Aggies notably will not face rival BYU this season, they do have four games against other schools from West Coast Conference, including a neutral-site game in Las Vegas against Loyola Marymount.
Utah State also received an invite to the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu, Hawaii, where it will open the tournament against Seattle.