Expectations weren’t initially high for the Utah State men’s basketball team last November.

The Aggies were coming off an 18-16 season with a losing conference record, and they were now moving on from senior starters Justin Bean, Brandon Horvath and Brock Miller, leaving a young and inexperienced team behind them.

No matter the exact moment that changed, whether it was grad transfer Taylor Funk burying a 3-pointer from the USU logo in the season opener against Utah Valley or the 4-0 sweep over West Coast Conference opponents, it became clear that Utah State’s brief hiatus from being a contender was clearly over, and that means high expectations have reentered the building.

Last season’s team understandably missed out on the NCAA Tournament and was instead invited to the NIT, where it hosted — and lost — a first-round game to Oregon. Prior to the start of the 2022-23 season, Aggies coach Ryan Odom made it clear that the NIT is not enough for his program.

As odd as it seems for a team that is 17-5 and at one point was one of the last five undefeated teams in the country, the Aggies still have work to do if they hope to make it to the Big Dance, according to most bracketologists, who are often more in favor of New Mexico, San Diego State, Boise State and Nevada out of the Mountain West. Now it all comes down to the resume, and there are three main things the Aggies must do to beef it up for a tourney invite.

Note: The obvious way is to win the MWC Tournament, so key factors here are what could help secure an at-large bid if the Aggies don’t bring a banner home from Las Vegas in March.

Second note: We’re focusing on realistic goals, so I did not mention the other obvious solution of mind-tricking the selection committee into thinking the loss to Weber State never happened.

1. Get to 23 wins

It seems like an odd number (pun not intended), but if Odom and his coaches are Aggies fans of SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound), then this isn’t a bad one to set.

Utah State forward Taylor Funk (23) makes a 3-pointer as UNLV guard Keshon Gilbert (10) defends Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, in Logan. If there’s one thing this Aggies team likes to do, it’s launch bombs from the perimeter. | Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via Associated Press

It’s all about putting into context what happens to get to 23. There are nine games left in the regular season. While Utah State has looked far more vulnerable since starting the season 9-0 — having gone 8-5 since — the remaining slate provides ample opportunity to make a good impression down the homestretch, including a number of shots at Quad 1 teams, according to current NET rankings (more on that later).

If the Aggies go 6-3 over during remainder of conference play, they’ll finish 23-8 with a 12-6 conference record, likely earning a first-round bye in the league tournament, and are a likely team to see in the semifinals. Putting aside the matter of who they beat, it’d be a tough decision for the committee not to at least have the Aggies in a play-in game with that kind of performance.

Utah State basketball: Balance, bounce-backs and bombs-away

There aren’t currently any Quad 4 games left on USU’s schedule, but the two losses that would be absolute dealbreakers at this point would be at home to Air Force or at Wyoming, both on the low end of Quad 3.

2. Win a Quad 1 game

Speaking of dealbreakers …

The Mountain West has been unnaturally loaded with quality teams this season, and that means the Aggies are getting shot after shot at NET top-30 teams in conference play.

The trouble is that Utah State has so far gone 0-3 against those teams (Boise State, Nevada, SDSU), losing by an average of 16 points per game, never mind that it also struggled recently in Quad 2 games and needed some late-game heroics to overcome a potential Quad 3 loss at home to San Jose State.

The Aggies’ best-looking win as of now is an early-season Quad 2 victory over Oral Roberts, which is 15-4 and No. 52 in NET rankings. The best conference win is at home over UNLV —No. 75 in NET rankings — and the Rebels aren’t doing anyone any favors with the backslide they’ve been on since conference play began.

Utah State forward Dan Akin draws a charge against San Jose State forward Robert Vaihola during game Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023, in Logan. The Aggies must shore up their defense down the home stretch. | Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via Associated Press

There stands to be about three or four Quad 1 games left on USU’s schedule — beginning with Wednesday’s home game against 30th-ranked New Mexico; home dates with SDSU and Boise State, and tentatively that road game against the Rebels are other possible Quad 1 games for the Aggies. The pressure is at critical capacity to capture a win or two in those games, otherwise the Aggies will look too much the part of a plucky mid-major ill-prepared for the national stage.

3. Figure out the defense

Enough schedule talk. Taking a look at how USU needs to improve when actually playing games, it’s all comes back to defense, or a lack thereof.

Just saying “improve the defense” is a highly broad wish, but while this reporter hasn’t personally asked Odom what specific improvements need to be made (save that interview question for later), Utah State’s defensive statistics clearly indicate that something needs to improve.

The Aggies are 227th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 71 points per game, good enough for third-to-last in the Mountain West, and they’re 136th in opponent field goal percentage. They’ve uniquely struggled to keep opponents from making 3s, allowing 37.6% of them to fall, which is a shocking 340th nationally and the worst in the MW. They’re also forcing just 11.2 turnovers per game, second worst rate in the conference.

It’s not like everything is bad. Utah State counterbalances the perimeter woes with some commendable interior defense, thanks to the imposing presence of Trevin Dorius and Dan Akin in the paint. In total opponent field goal percentage, the Aggies are sixth in the conference at 42.6%.

The Aggies have reliably won games with offense, shooting way more 3s than anyone else in the league at a scintillating, net-scorching, entire-nation-leading 41.8% clip. As fun as that is to watch, it will only become more necessary down the line to ensure the team against a cold-shooting night (a la Boise State) by making opponents work harder on the other end.

Particularly with the Lobos coming to town this week — bringing the No. 15 scoring offense in the nation with them — time is running out to solve the issue. Later on, if the Aggies actually do get into the Big Dance, they’ll have to figure out how to make stops to have a chance.

Utah State coach Ryan Odom talks to his assistants during game against Seattle Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022, in Honolulu. | Marco Garcia, Associated Press