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Aggies’ first-year coach sprinkling some basketball magic in Cache Valley

Using a largely revamped roster, former Montana State coach Danny Sprinkle has USU off to historic start

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A Utah State fan runs onto the court to celebrate Aggies’ win over No. 13 Colorado State with freshman guard Mason Falslev.

A Utah State fan runs onto the court to celebrate the Aggies’ win over No. 13 Colorado State with freshman guard Mason Falslev Jan. 6, at the Spectrum in Logan.

Jeff Hunter

LOGAN — Blake Anderson knows a good turnaround when he sees it. After all, Utah State’s head football coach orchestrated an unlikely rebuild in 2021 when he took an Aggies team that went a woeful 1-5 during the COVID season to a Mountain West championship and a 10-3 record during his first season in Logan.

“It’s a credit to our guys and the production they’ve delivered in the first 16 games of the year. But we know it’s going to get harder, and we know that adversity is going to come in. So, if we’re ranked at the end of the year, then we’ll celebrate that.” — Utah State coach Danny Sprinkle

So, Anderson has great appreciation for what USU head basketball coach Danny Sprinkle has managed to do during his inaugural campaign with a revamped roster.

“It’s been awesome to watch; he’s doing a great job,” Anderson said of Sprinkle, who is off to the best start of any Utah State basketball coach in history at 15-1.

“I thought we caught lightning in a bottle that first year very similarly with bringing in a few players that we already had positive relationships with, grabbed some others and brought in a high-energy staff. And it’s kind of playing out the same way for them.”

“It’s obviously far from over,” Anderson added, “but you can see very clearly that they know what they’re doing, and that they’re going to be successful. He’s got a good formula.”

Normally, a “good formula” for success in college basketball would be taking over a program that won 26 games and was deemed worthy of an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament the previous year. But after former USU coach Ryan Odom left for VCU after two seasons with the Aggies, just about anything involved with the Utah State program that wasn’t nailed down either graduated or transferred to another school.

Sprinkle, who was hired away from Montana State by interim-athletic director Jerry Bovee, inherited a “team” whose veteran experience was comprised of walk-on guard Landon Brenchley, and a pair of athletes — sophomore center Isaac Johnson and freshman guard Mason Falslev — who redshirted during the 2022-23 season.

But despite not returning a single point from last year’s roster, Sprinkle has seemingly lived up to his name by sprinkling some sort of magic dust on his group of newcomers.

Other than an overtime loss at Bradley on Nov. 11, Utah State is completely unscathed after being picked to finish ninth in the Mountain West Conference preseason poll. And the surprising Aggies went from not receiving any votes to being ranked 20th in this week’s AP Top 25 poll on the strength of their upset of then-No. 13 Colorado State on Jan. 6.

Not that you would know the Aggies were ranked if you were around the Utah State basketball team, which currently owns the country’s longest winning streak at 14 games. Sprinkle’s mantra is “the rent is due tomorrow,” which leaves the Aggies until midnight to enjoy a victory before turning their focus toward their next opponent.

“I think the fans and social media have enjoyed it more than we have,” Sprinkle said of the national attention that’s been directed USU’s way the past couple of weeks. “Even after the Wyoming game (on Tuesday), we haven’t talked (about being ranked). I haven’t heard one player, or one coach say anything about our ranking. We know how early it is, and how early you can drop out of the top 25.”

The Aggies, who head into this weekend’s slate tied for first in the Mountain West with San Diego State, will certainly put that to the test the next couple of weeks. Utah State (15-1, 3-0) plays at UNLV (8-6, 1-1) Saturday, and the Rebels are coming off an 83-73 win over previously ranked New Mexico Tuesday night in Las Vegas. UNLV also upset then-No. 8 Creighton, featuring former Aggie guard Steven Ashworth, on Dec. 13.

“They’re obviously a tremendous team,” Sprinkle said of the Rebels. “I think they’ve kind of got their roles defined, lately. Like their guys know who’s going to play now, and I think when you see some of their games recently, they’ve played as good as they’ve played.”

Next week, Utah State travels to Albuquerque to take on the Lobos (13-3, 1-2) at The Pit before returning home to host Fresno State (0-2, 7-8). The Aggies then hit the road again to battle Boise State (11-4, 2-0).

That the Aggies are even in contention in what is proving to be a very strong Mountain West Conference is nothing short of amazing considering that Sprinkle was hired a little later than most coaches, mostly because outgoing USU president Noelle Cockett wanted to give the new president a chance to hire an athletic director following John Hartwell’s sudden departure last fall.

But when Bovee, who served as athletic director at Weber State for 10 years before returning to his alma mater as a deputy AD in 2019, was given an opportunity to hire the new coach, he turned to someone from a place he was comfortable — the Big Sky Conference.

A former Bobcat star, Sprinkle won 81 games and two conference titles in four years at Montana State; he brought that same energy — and a couple of his former players — to Cache Valley.

Much like Anderson, who brought three players along from his previous job at Arkansas State, including starting quarterback Logan Bonner, Sprinkle convinced senior point guard Darius Brown II and junior forward Great Osobor to leave Bozeman and join him at Utah State. Their comfort level with Sprinkle’s system and coaching style has paid off handsomely for everyone.

Osobor is second in the Mountain West in scoring (18.6 ppg) and first in rebounding (9.4 rpg), while Brown is first in the nation in total assists (121) and second in assist-to-turnover ratio (5.26).

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Utah State guard Mason Falslev dunks as Wyoming forward Mason Walters defends during game Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024, in Logan, Utah.

Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via Associated Press

Brown and Osobor’s chemistry on the court is obvious, they’ve both also meshed well with Falslev. The former Sky View High star sat out last season after serving a mission, and he couldn’t have been more ready to get back on the court. The freshman is second in the Mountain West in steals (1.94) and third on the Aggies in scoring at 11.8 ppg. He has also thrown down some incredible dunks, including one against Wyoming on Tuesday that came in at No. 3 on “SportsCenter’s” Top 10.

Senior guard Ian Martinez, a transfer from Maryland is second in scoring behind Osobor at 12.3 ppg, including a 28-point outburst against Santa Clara on Dec. 13. The Aggies could use some more offensive consistency from Martinez, who has scored just 15 points in the last two games, especially after senior wing Max Agbonkpolo was lost for the season in mid-December due to an ongoing foot issue requiring surgery.

The Aggies could also use some improved shooting from the perimeter, which would help open things up for Osobor, who is very savvy about passing out of double teams in the post. While Utah State is second in the conference in field goal percentage at .502, the Aggies’ 3-point field goal percentage is dead last at .315.

Brown has knocked down a team-high 23 treys, while Johnson, a 7-foot American Fork High product who transferred from Oregon, currently leads USU in 3-point shooting at 44.4% (12 for 27). Transfer guards Josh Uduje (16 for 47) and Javon Jackson (10 for 27) have both had good shooting games from beyond the arc.

That lack of perimeter shooting certainly separates Sprinkle’s team from recent Aggie teams coached by Odom and Craig Smith that relied heavily on pinpoint 3-point shooting. And yet when Smith, now the head coach at Utah, arrived at Utah State, it seemed that he had set an unreachable standard for first-year coaches in Logan when the 2018-19 Aggies opened the season 11-4.

That team, which was also picked to finish ninth in the Mountain West, ended up going 28-7 and winning the MWC tournament.

Remarkably, the Aggies seem to have caught “lightning in a bottle” again. Not that Sprinkle is looking beyond the next day’s rent despite all of the attention from national media.

“It’s a credit to our guys and the production they’ve delivered in the first 16 games of the year,” said Sprinkle, who was recently honored last week with the Jim Phelan Mid-Season coaching award.

“But we know it’s going to get harder, and we know that adversity is going to come in. So, if we’re ranked at the end of the year, then we’ll celebrate that.”

Utah State coach Danny Sprinkle talks with guard Darius Brown II during a game against Wyoming, Jan. 9, 2024, in Logan.

Utah State coach Danny Sprinkle talks with guard Darius Brown II during a game against Wyoming, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024, in Logan, Utah. The first-year Aggies coach has USU off to a 15-1 start and a No. 20 national ranking.

Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via Associated Press