Balance and length were the strengths that Utah State men’s basketball coach Ryan Odom stressed about the Aggies entering the 2022-23 season.
Those strengths were on full display in front of 7,000-plus fans at the Spectrum on Monday night as the Aggies took down Utah Valley, 75-58, in their season opener. USU outrebounded the Wolverines, 47-34, and had four players score at least nine points.
Playing his first game for Utah State, grad transfer Taylor Funk was an instant revelation for the team, finishing with a double-double of 18 points and 14 rebounds. Funk was impactful on almost every offensive possession when he was on the court, especially when he capped an 8-0 run at the end of the first half with a huge 3-pointer from the edge of the midcourt logo.
“I was known as a shooter,” Funk said. “I see myself as a little bit more than that … I could have got a little closer, but I thought I’d make it interesting.”
Senior Sean Bairstow led all scorers with 19 points. He had 15 at the half. His 19th point came with a 11:09 left to play, one short of his career-high.
“Good game for everyone,” Bairstow said. “We just contribute as a team. Everyone finished some (plays) … and that’s how it’s going to be the whole season. We move the ball, share the ball, whoever’s open takes the shot, so whoever scores at the end of the day, we’re happy with it. We just need to score.”
After building a 41-28 lead at the half, the Aggies got a solid return punch from the Wolverines, who went on a 10-2 run midway through the second frame to get within four points of the Aggies. Odom said the difference down the stretch was all about defense, and it was something that Bairstow, the team captain, counseled the team about prior to the game, saying that they would win with defense and offense would figure itself out.
“We got six of seven stops in one stretch, six of nine stops in another,” Odom said. “When you combine the two, and you’re scoring on the other end … We separated with baskets, and we separated with stops on the other side … I was pleased with the way that it ended for us, not just the win, but how it happened.”
The Aggies’ defense was dominant throughout the game, holding UVU to 33% from the field and an ice-cold 16% from the 3-point line. Conversely, USU’s offensive balance gave open looks to everyone, leading to USU shooting 45% from the field and 42% from the arc.
Sophomore Aziz Bandaogo led the Wolverines in scoring with 17 points, many of which came on assists under the basket for dunks. Bandaogo went 7-for-9 from the field and had six rebounds.
UVU, a program that’s proved pesky to other instate squads in past seasons (ask BYU), returned most of its key players from last season’s 20-win campaign, and Odom praised the Wolverines and coach Mark Madsen for their performance in the game and what they threw at the home team.
“Coach Madsen’s got a good squad,” Odom said. “I thought the two teams were very similar coming into the game … (Bandaogo) obviously had a great game. We were not expecting him to start, and he knocks in two 3s in the first half. That’s his game.”
USU’s starting lineup was a source of curiosity earlier in the day. Tweets from fans had people asking why incoming transfer Dan Akin, senior Steven Ashworth, or former starter RJ Eytle-Rock weren’t starting. The depth was apparent by the end of the game. Ashworth led the bench with nine points on 3-of-9 shooting, and Akin played almost twice as many minutes as starting center Trevin Dorius. He finished with six points and five rebounds.
Senior Max Shulga, who played with a U20 Ukraine team in FIBA over the summer, showcased dramatic improvement in his game. He went 4-for-9 from the field and scored 14 points. He drained a pair of corner 3s in the first few minutes to keep the Aggies ahead.
Utah State led for 35 out of 40 minutes of play.