LOGAN — Late in last week’s win over San Jose State, Utah State’s Ian Martinez banked in a straightaway 3-pointer to stretch the Aggies’ lead to 18 points and maintain a perfect shooting night for the senior guard. While the Spectrum crowd was going wild and his teammates laughing and cheering, Martinez quietly backpedaled up the court without a hint of a smile, just as he did while making all six of his field-goal attempts against the Spartans.

“It was either going to happen or it wasn’t. But we certainly knew how much he could help our team if he was cleared to play.” — USU associate head coach Andy Hill on Ian Martinez’s eligibility issue

“That’s just Ian,” notes USU associate head coach Andy Hill, who has known the 6-foot-3 Martinez since he was a highly sought-after high school recruit out of Southern California.

“Sometimes it is kind of hard to tell what he’s thinking when he’s playing because he doesn’t show a lot of emotion.”

When asked about this, Martinez, unsurprisingly, doesn’t smile. He simply concedes that Hill is right.

“It’s not that I don’t like to show emotion,” Martinez explains, “it’s just that I try to go hard and stay focused. I know in a situation like that that I need to come back down on defense and try and get a stop.

“It’s not that I’m not enjoying myself out there, though,” he clarifies. “I play to help the team win and to entertain people. And I do smile and say ‘hi’ to people around school and facilities and everyone, but not really on the court. That’s just part of me.”

It should be noted that there is evidence that Martinez does smile, such as in celebratory video clips put on social media after the Aggies won the Cayman Islands Classic back in November. Or the video, captured by USU assistant athletic media relations coordinator Ashley Springer, that shows Martinez displaying a hint of happiness after being surprised by his family at the team hotel in Illinois, just before playing his first game as an Aggie at Bradley on Nov. 11.  

In a moment that would warm any parent’s heart, his 12-year-old sister, Noa, outraces her parents, Henry and Helen, and leaps into her big brother’s arms, wrapping her legs around his waist while hugging him tightly.

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“That was a total surprise; I didn’t know,” Martinez says of seeing his family. “We were at the hotel watching film and getting ready for our pregame meal, when someone told me I needed to go downstairs to see one of the assistant coaches. So, I headed down and suddenly my family is there.

“It was kind of a shock to see them. I wasn’t expecting it because they live in Virginia.”

Good news

That moment was even more emotional because less than 48 hours earlier, Martinez had finally found out from the NCAA that he would be eligible to play for the Aggies in 2023-24 after transferring from Maryland. Because he also left Utah following his freshman year with the Utes in 2020-21, Martinez had to apply for a special waiver to play for USU without sitting out this season.

Martinez originally petitioned the NCAA shortly after announcing he was coming to Utah State in June 2023, then received a request for additional information about his situation. After not hearing anything from the NCAA for a couple of months, his collegiate basketball career was “up in the air,” and he sat out the Aggies’ exhibition game and their season-opening win over South Dakota Mines.

“My initial thoughts were that I didn’t get it because it had been so long, and, at that point, not many people had gotten their waivers approved,” admits Martinez, who spent the first couple of weeks of his senior year on the Aggies’ scout team. “So, I was preparing myself mentally to sit down, which was hard. I was just trying to change my mindset and do whatever I could to help the rest of the team prepare.

“… Then they told me in a meeting after practice that I had been cleared, and it was such a shocker. It just came completely out of nowhere.”

Utah State assistant coaches Andy Hill, foreground, and Chris Haslam high-five Aggie fans following the USU’s win over ETSU at the Spectrum in Logan on Dec. 22, 2023. Hill was on the University of Utah staff when Martinez was a Runnin’ Ute. | Jeff Hunter

Hill, who spent 10 years as an assistant coach for the Utes under Larry Krystkowiak, was the linchpin that led Martinez to coming to Utah State. He and fellow Utah assistant Tommy Connor were instrumental in recruiting Martinez, who averaged 23.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.3 steals during his senior year at JSerra Catholic High in San Juan Capistrano, California, and that relationship wasn’t forgotten after Krystkowiak and his staff were let go following the 2020-21 season.

From a Ute to a Terp

While Martinez elected to transfer to Maryland when, ironically, former USU head coach Craig Smith was hired to take over the Utes program, Hill spent the 2021-22 season at New Mexico before joining Danny Sprinkle’s staff at Montana State. Hill, who first met Sprinkle while serving as an assistant at Eastern Washington in 2003-04, was hired at Montana the following year.

“I spent eight years at Montana, so going to Montana State was a little bit …” Hill notes before tailing off. “But I absolutely love Montana, so I was very happy to be back there again and had no intentions of leaving anytime soon.”

But Hill, who still owns a home on Flathead Lake north of Missoula, helped Sprinkle, a Treasure State native who is seventh on Montana State’s all-time leading scorer list, coach the Bobcats to a 25-10 record and a second-straight NCAA Tournament appearance. That led to Sprinkle being hired as USU’s next head coach and Hill suddenly returning to the state of Utah, where the cupboard in Cache Valley was almost completely bare.

Graduation and transfers following Ryan Odom’s departure for VCU left Sprinkle without a returning Aggie who had scored a point in 2022-23, so he and his staff went searching high and low for players. Two crucial recruits ended up being senior guard Darius Brown II and junior forward Great Osobor, who were both at Montana State last year. Martinez was far more of a wild card, but one that Hill and Sprinkle both felt was worth the risk.

“It was either going to happen or it wasn’t,” Hill says of Martinez’s eligibility issue. “But we certainly knew how much he could help our team if he was cleared to play.”

Basketball pedigree

Martinez grew up in Costa Rica, the son of Henry Martinez, a highly regarded former professional player and coach, who encouraged his two sons, Avery and Ian, to move to the United States to play high school basketball. While Avery ended up playing at several different colleges, including Cal State Northridge, Henry Martinez was added to Krystkowiak’s staff prior to the 2019-20 season and was able to coach his youngest son the following year.

During his year with the Utes, Ian Martinez saw little action the first half of the season, but he saw much more playing time later in the year. Although he ended averaging just 5.2 points per game, Martinez saved his best for last, scoring a then-career-high 18 points in Utah’s season-ending loss to USC in the Pac-12 tournament.

USC’s Evan Mobley (4) guards Utah’s Ian Martinez during the quarterfinal round of the Pac-12 tournament Thursday, March 11, 2021, in Las Vegas. Martinez, a freshman for the Runnin’ Utes at the time, scored a then career-high 18 points against the Trojans. | John Locher, Associated Press

However, Martinez was unable to build on that momentum with the Terrapins. Originally drawn to College Park by head coach Mark Turgeon, he played for the veteran coach for just eight games before Turgeon and Maryland went their separate ways, opening the door for Danny Manning to step in as the interim coach the rest of the season. Martinez’s shooting never got on track — he shot less than 33% from the field and was just 8 of 30 from 3-point range — and the Terps finished 10-14 under Manning.

Maryland then brought in yet another head coach, Kevin Willard, for the 2022-23 season, and Martinez thrived primarily in the role of Maryland’s sixth man. But despite leading the team in 3-point shooting at 40.3% and averaging 5.7 points per game, he elected to put his name in the transfer portal following the season.

Knowing that he would be playing for a fifth head coach in four seasons if he was cleared to play in 2023-24, Martinez reached out to Utah State because he felt “a lot more comfortable knowing somebody, and playing for somebody that knows me, as well.”

“Coach Hill has coached me, and he knows how I work and operate on a day-to-day basis, so coming here was like a no-brainer,” Martinez declares.

Solid start

Martinez showed what he could in his first game at Bradley, coming off the bench to score nine points in 27 minutes in USU’s overtime loss to the Braves. That would be the Aggies’ final setback for more than two months as Utah State put together a 15-game winning streak, cracking the top 25 in early January while becoming one of the most unlikely success stories in the country.

A starter for the Aggies since late November, Martinez was named the Mountain West Player of the Week on Dec. 18, after putting up a career-high 28 points at Santa Clara and scoring another 20 points in USU’s win over San Francisco at the Delta Center. And even when the Aggies’ winning streak finally came to an end at New Mexico on Jan. 16, Martinez’s offensive abilities were put on full display during an incredible second-half stretch when he scored 14 straight points for the Aggies.

“(Martinez) saved us,” Sprinkle said after USU’s 99-86 loss. “We were on the verge of getting blown out, and he breathed a little bit of life into our team. He’s capable of doing that, and we are going to need him to do that more.”

“I just want the team to win, and to do my part to help the team. I started off a bit slow, but I’ve been able to get into more of a rhythm with the starting guys, and we’ve really meshed together. And I think that’s come at the right time.” — USU guard Ian Martinez

Prior to last Saturday’s loss at San Diego State, where Martinez had a quiet outing (1 for 7, 8 points) against the Aztecs, Martinez had done just that, averaging 18.8 points a night over a five-game stretch. Already one of Utah State’s best offensive options due to his athletic skills and ability to create off the dribble, Martinez has developed into a much-needed perimeter threat for the Aggies.

Now shooting 53% from the field and second in scoring (13.7 ppg), Martinez leads Utah State in 3-pointers (34) and 3-point field goal percentage (42.5%) — numbers that don’t surprise Hill, who anticipated that Martinez would thrive with more consistency and playing time.

“He’s getting an opportunity now, and he’s obviously making the most of it,” Hill says of Martinez, who is also second on the Aggies in blocks with 20. “The sky’s the limit for him.”

Although Martinez will have another year of eligibility remaining, he’s not looking past this season and is focused on keeping the 22nd-ranked Aggies in the hunt in a very strong Mountain West Conference. After being picked to finish ninth in the conference preseason poll, Utah State (19-3 overall, 7-2 in the MW) is tied for first place with Boise State, one game into its toughest six-game stretch of the season.

“I just want the team to win, and to do my part to help the team,” Martinez says. “I started off a bit slow, but I’ve been able to get into more of a rhythm with the starting guys, and we’ve really meshed together. And I think that’s come at the right time.

“We’ve got off to a great start, but it goes by fast. Soon we’ll be into March, so we’ve got to focus on finishing strong. We’ve got to keep coming together as a team.”

Utah State guard Ian Martinez waits to check in during the Aggies’ win over San Jose State Jan. 30 at the Spectrum in Logan. | Jeff Hunter