LOGAN — When Daylight Savings Time began last March, the Utah State basketball team had just returned home from the Mountain West Basketball Championships in Las Vegas and were a few hours away from being awarded an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.
“The one thing we didn’t want to do was sacrifice character and toughness. I would sacrifice some talent in the first year, even though I know you need a lot of talent to win in this league. But I want to build it the right way.” — new Utah State basketball coach Danny Sprinkle
Then-head coach Ryan Odom had guided the Aggies to 26 victories behind the play of guards Steven Ashworth, Max Shulga and Sean Bairstow, and forwards Taylor Funk, Dan Akin and Zee Hamoda, good enough for a second-place finish in the Mountain West standings.
But as the sun rose a little bit earlier on Sunday morning, the end of Daylight Savings Time signaled the start of a new season and shined some light on a very different looking USU team.
The Aggies, who open the 2023-24 campaign Monday night at the Spectrum against Division II South Dakota Mines, underwent a nearly complete roster overhaul sparked by Odom’s departure and the lure of the transfer portal.
“It’s crazy: no points, no rebounds, no assists,” new USU head coach Danny Sprinkle acknowledged at Mountain West Basketball Media Day last month. “We got the job on April 7, and you’ve got to sign some guys and do it in a hurry at a high level.”
Sprinkle, a former Montana State star, left his alma mater after four years and 81 wins to step into the role vacated by Odom, who took over the helm at Virginia Commonwealth after just two seasons in Logan. While Funk is now a member of the Boston Celtics’ G League team in Maine and Akin is playing professionally in France, Ashworth (Creighton), Shulga (VCU), Bairstow (VCU) and Hamoda (Sacramento State) all transferred.
Eventually, the lone Aggie survivors were sophomore walk-on guard Landon Brenchley, who didn’t record a point in nine minutes of playing time last season, and a pair of players who redshirted in 2022-23: sophomore center Isaac Johnson and freshman guard Mason Falslev.
That left an awful lot of holes for Sprinkle and his staff, which includes longtime Utah assistant Andy Hill, to fill in a very short amount of time.
“It was hard,” Sprinkle admitted. “But I like the guys. The one thing we didn’t want to do was sacrifice character and toughness. I would sacrifice some talent in the first year, even though I know you need a lot of talent to win in this league. But I want to build it the right way.
“I don’t want to build a team, I want to build a program. I want to build something that (former USU head coach) Stew Morrill and guys that were there before me are proud of.”
Sprinkle started his recruiting quest by bringing along two known quantities in graduate guard Darius Brown II and junior wing Great Osobor, who both played for him at Montana State. The 2022-23 Big Sky Defensive Player, Brown averaged 11.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg and 4.3 apg last season, his only year in Bozeman after transferring from Cal State Northridge. Due to his experience, Brown will be counted on for his leadership skills as much as his defensive savvy and scoring skills.
Brown started USU’s exhibition game last Friday night Montana State Billings, scoring four points and dishing out seven assists in 31 minutes. Osobor “tweaked” his ankle in practice before the Aggies’ 73-64 win at the Spectrum, sidelining the 6-foot-8, 250-pounder for at least the immediate future.
Junior guard Josh Uduje, a native of England who came to USU via Coastal Carolina, started the exhibition, contributing 10 points and two 3-pointers, while Kalifa Sakho, a 6-11 junior forward from France, was also in the first five last week. Max Agbonkpolo, a 6-9 graduate wing transfer from Wyoming who started his career at USC, scored four points in 13 minutes, his first action since injuring a foot during practice in late September.
“Max hadn’t practiced or done anything in six weeks, and he had his first practice just 48 hours ago,” Sprinkle pointed out. “I was proud of the way he played. I know there’s no way he’s in shape right now, but he came out and competed.
“… I didn’t even know if he was going to play until right before the game. And so, who knows if he plays on Monday?”
The top scorers in the exhibition game, which wasn’t nearly as close as the final score suggests thanks to a 13-1 run by the Yellowjackets at the end of game, were Aggie “veterans” Falslev and Johnson, who finished with 23 and 13 points, respectively.
A Cache Valley native who starred in both football and basketball at Sky View High before serving a mission to Brazil, Falslev went 9 of 12 from the floor, 3 for 4 from 3-point range and added seven rebounds and four assists in 31 minutes.
“Last year was the hardest year of my life,” Falslev said of his redshirt season. “I’d never been in that kind of position before, and I knew that I was going to work as hard as I could throughout the summer. Every day of the summer all of us were getting shots up. I’m just thankful because what you put in is what you get out and it was really awesome to see some results today.”
Johnson, a 7-foot American Fork grad who transferred from Oregon, knocked down 5 of 9 field-goal attempts, including one 3-pointer.
“He’s a tremendous shooter,” Sprinkle said of Johnson, “but he’s also a really good passer. … He’s seven feet tall and can see over the defense. So, we’ll use him in a multitude of ways this year, but we need him to continue to be aggressive offensively.”
Sophomore guard Javon Jackson (four points, three assists), sophomore forward Nigel Burris (five points, five assists) and freshman forward Karson Templin (four points, two steals) also played double-digit minutes against Montana State Billings.
“For the first time playing in front of a crowd, I was proud our guys,” Sprinkle said of his team, which was slated to finish ninth in the Mountain West Preseason Poll. “Their effort was great.”
Sprinkle later added: “I know our guys are looking forward to (the season starting), and that we’ll make we’ll make big strides in the next month and a half with this with this team. But I also know that we’re going to have to go through some adversity, too.”