After the Utah State men’s basketball team blew out Wyoming on Tuesday night, a reporter asked senior forward Dan Akin, “So who won the dunk contest?”
Akin, along with his senior teammate Sean Bairstow, put on a show as the Aggies had six dunks in the game, nearly all of them highlight-reel-worthy — the kind that gets clipped and shared on social media with fire and arm flex emojis in the caption.
Akin laughed and said Bairstow beat him, and he was probably right, seeing as Bairstow capped off the night jamming one-handed over two defenders so hard that his subsequent celebration earned a technical foul.
Between highlight-reel dunks, balanced scoring, high-energy play, a pretty 14-3 record and a knack for getting back up, it’s easy to tell the Aggies are having a lot of fun in what’s looking like a special season in Logan.
Utah State moved to 2-1 in the Mountain West Conference after its 83-63 beatdown of the Cowboys. Despite suffering its first conference loss in ugly fashion to the rival Boise State Broncos, 82-59, the dawn of spring semester brought out a student crowd that junior guard Steven Ashworth praised on his Twitter account the next day, saying, “I’ve played in front of the Hurd many times, but nothing quite like last night!”
“There’s been a lot of teams that have come in here and felt what we felt,” Wyoming head coach Jeff Linder said.
No matter what happened in Boise, the crowd saw exactly what it came for against Wyoming. Big plays drew deafening roars, reminding visitors what a home-court advantage in Logan looks and sounds like. The home team couldn’t get enough, waving their arms and riling up the crowd time and time again. By the end of the night, last weekend’s loss was a distant memory.
Of the Aggies’ three losses, Utah State has beaten its subsequent opponents by 28, nine and 20 points, respectively.
“I think it’s just trusting what we do,” graduate forward Taylor Funk said. “The big words for us are ‘champions always answer.’ It’s real easy to come into a practice after a loss like that and have your heads down, but that’s not this group whatsoever. We come in with the same energy as if we just won by 20. It’s kind of hard to imagine that but it’s the truth, for sure.”
The bounce-back mentality showed for some players personally as well as for the team. When the Aggies went 2-1 at the Diamond Head Classic in Maui in December, perhaps no one on the team struggled more than sophomore forward Zee Hamoda. Hamoda, who averages 18.1 minutes per game, shot just 5 of 13 for 11 points in the tournament and played just six minutes in the final game against Washington on Christmas Day.
Just six days later on New Year’s Eve, Hamoda went off for a team-high 13 points on 5-of-6 shooting and willed his team to victory over Fresno State.
The last few years of Aggies basketball have had one player or another serving as a focal point, whether it was Justin Bean, Neemias Queta or a certain Cache Valley folk hero named Sam Merrill.
Such has not been the case since this season began. Five different players average double figures in scoring, led by Ashworth’s 16.1 ppg. Of the top eight players on the team, seven of them have led the team, or tied with another teammate, in scoring at least once, and three of them fill nonstarting roles, including Ashworth himself.
Head coach Ryan Odom has never even come close to identifying anyone on the team as a star. He frankly didn’t seem to even care for the term.
“We never want to say we have a star player,” Odom said. “Players make plays. There are players that end up being like Sam Merrill … but they would never walk in here and say, ‘I’m the star,’ because that takes away from everybody else and what being on a team is all about. … We don’t concern ourselves with who the best player is. It’s all about what we do within the moment that we have together.”
Indeed, the Aggies have had to rely on different players to respond at different times, particularly as two different starters have already missed time.
“If all of a sudden, you take one piece out, it can change the dynamic, it changes the minutes, it changes the rotations and all that,” Odom said. “All teams want to be at their strongest, they want to have roles to find and be playing their best basketball at the end of the season. For us, it’s not about any one player, but one player can impact the team.”
Utah State’s team-centric play style makes them a top-25 team in points per game and assists per game this year. The Aggies average 81.9 ppg, 24th nationally. After leading the MWC in assists last season by nearly a full four per game, the team has maintained its average with only a slight regression from 17.9 per game last season to 17.6 per game this season, which is 21st nationally.
Odom says there’s still plenty of work to do. The Aggies’ defense, despite coming off a great performance, is a work in progress, averaging 70.2 points allowed, good enough for 214th nationally.
“We don’t want to just be known as an offensive team, we want to be a well-balanced team, a team that can defend, a team that rebounds. … That’s what the best teams in college basketball can do,” Odom said. “They can beat you in multiple ways.”
With 17 games down and 14 to go, nothing is yet guaranteed for the Aggies, except perhaps one thing. They have their fans’ full attention.