‘One big family’ Aggies say they are ready for their special moment in March Madness
Utah State players and coaches say their trust in each other will help them against Missouri on Thursday in the NCAA Tournament
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — At first glance, the Utah State Aggies would not appear to be one of the most close-knit teams in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
Two of the main contributors are in their first year in the program — graduate forwards Dan Akin and Taylor Funk. The newcomers are joined by other top players from Ukraine (Max Shulga), Australia (Sean Bairstow) and England (Akin and RJ Eytle-Rock).
“There is trust from all 15 guys down the roster to know that if you are giving out the ball, it is to someone who has a better shot than you. There is no pride, no ‘me time’ basketball, just everybody playing for the same purpose, and that is to win.” — Utah State center Trevin Dorius
Then there is a nice mixture of instate guys — Alpine’s Steven Ashworth, Heber City’s Trevin Dorius and Salt Lake City/Logan’s Rylan Jones, the transfer from Utah who won’t play again this season due to multiple concussions.
But after the Aggies (26-8) defeated New Mexico and Boise State last week to advance to the Mountain West championship game, Ashworth — yes, the Utah County boy is the heart-and-soul of the team and unofficial go-to spokesperson — attributed Utah State’s success to otherworldly trust and belief in each other.
“A big word I think about is trust,” Ashworth said. “That is Aggie basketball to the core.”
Tenth-seeded Utah State faces No. 7 seed Missouri (24-9) of the SEC on Thursday in a first-round game at Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento. Tipoff is at 11:40 a.m. MDT (10:40 a.m. in the Pacific Time Zone) and the game will be televised by TNT.
Asked by the Deseret News to elaborate on that trust dynamic Wednesday when the Aggies’ captains — Jones, Ashworth, Funk and Shulga — and coach Ryan Odom participated in the day-before news conference at the home of the Sacramento Kings, Ashworth said it has carried them through all the highs and lows of the 2022-23 season.
“This team is a team that we know we don’t need one guy to be the star or the go-to guy to be the star or the go-to guy to win games,” he said. “I think that just in and of itself requires trust from the players trusting the coaching staff of what sets we’re going to run, what we’re going to do defensively, or trusting we’re going to be able to make shots when needed.”
Shortly after meeting with the media, the Aggies got their first look at the court where they will try to win an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 2001. Their 40-minute session included a good mixture of seriousness and laughter.
The Aggies appear loose, relaxed and “ready for our moment,” as Ashworth put it.
Dorius, the 7-foot-1 starting center who prepped at Wasatch High — not to be confused with national prep basketball powerhouse Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant — said having that “family feel” and trust in each other makes it easier to make the right play.
“There is not a guy that needs to take over for us to be good,” Dorius said. “There is trust from all 15 guys down the roster to know that if you are giving out the ball, it is to someone who has a better shot than you. There is no pride, no ‘me time’ basketball, just everybody playing for the same purpose, and that is to win.”
Dorius and Ashworth are the only two Aggies who are married.
Funk, who is from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and played in 120 games for St. Joseph’s before transferring to USU, said the trust in each other and family atmosphere “is something that really jumped out at me” when he made his official visit to Utah State.
“First thing we do, we take some four-wheelers up in the mountains, have a great time, the time of our lives, I felt like,” he said. “It kind of felt like we built friendships and relationships that are going to last a lifetime in five minutes.”
Funk said his new teammates and coaches have already made a huge impact on his life.
“It’s just a big family here,” he said. “Kind of what you want in a team because you spend a lot of time together. You don’t want to be around people you don’t like. This team really gave me what I was looking for.”
Funk was the Aggies’ hero in the win over New Mexico, scoring 32 points after he was left off the All-Mountain West teams. He did make the all-district team, along with Ashworth, who is the District VIII Player of the Year, as voted by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA).
“There’s trust that we’re going to have each others’ backs if we make mistakes, or to trust if I hit Taylor in the corner for an open 3, I trust he’s going to make it,” Ashworth said. “A lot of battles together, a lot of long days, go into building those relationships.
“This team has a lot of great relationships,” he continued. “With that comes a factor of trust that I think gives us an advantage over a lot of our competitors.”
Odom on Wednesday repeated one of the stories he told in Las Vegas about how players and coaches from his No. 16 seed UMBC team five years ago that beat No. 1 seed Virginia, started texting each other at 5 a.m. to relive that moment. He believes this Aggies team is capable of producing more special moments in the Big Dance, although USU is a slight favorite and not catching anyone by surprise as that Retrievers team did.
“It was so fun because it reminded me of why we do this, right?” Odom said. “And why we coach. It is to have those interactions, to have those special memories. … Rylan Jones, I wanted him to have this moment right here. Even though he’s not playing, I wanted him to experience what being in the NCAA Tournament is all about. Nobody wants us to win more than him.”
Odom said Jones is a “true Aggie” whose father (Highland High basketball coach Chris Jones) coached at Utah State.
“And Taylor Funk, one of the reasons he came to Utah State (is) because he wanted to be in this moment. We’re here because he chose to come, because Dan (Akin) chose to come. … So one of the keys for our team is just the connectivity that we have. We have to have everybody in our program dialed in, pulling the right direction, focus on our team being the best. I think we’ve had that all season.”
Aggies on the air
No. 10 Utah State (26-8)
vs. No. 7 Missouri (24-9)
Thursday, 11:40 a.m. MDT
At Golden 1 Center, Sacramento
Radio: 1280 The Zone
Jones, who appeared in 45 games and started in 43 for the Utes over the course of two seasons, averaging 7.6 points and 4.3 assists, decided to leave Salt Lake City for Logan — where he lived from the first grade to his sophomore season of high school — when Larry Krystkowiak was fired and replaced by, ironically, former USU head coach Craig Smith.
Jones said the culture that Utah had under Krystkowiak is similar to what he’s found at Utah State.
“But this culture, this team at Utah State, is something I could never totally describe. You just can’t put into words what we have up here — just the group of guys, the coaching staff, the administration, and then just like the community of Cache Valley,” he said. “It is just like one big family.
“That is where the trust comes in. We all love each other. We hang out with each other all the time. We are one big family. A family is built on trust, and that is what we have and that is what makes us so successful.”