This wasn’t supposed to happen. Utah State wasn’t supposed to be here — “here” being the NCAA basketball tournament. The Aggies were supposed to be at home this week with their feet up, watching the tournament on TV.

They started the season from scratch after their head coach and 13 players fled the scene in the offseason. The Aggies were just glad they didn’t take the furniture, too. Everyone who was anyone — anyone who had scored a point in a game — scattered. It was as if someone stood in the middle of the locker room, and, after coughing and sneezing violently a couple of times, announced he had a raging case of COVID-19 and two strains of flu.

Everyone ran away.

At the outset of the season, Danny Sprinkle — that’s the name of the new coach — knew what he was up against. “It’s probably going to be the hardest year of my life,” he told the Deseret News, “and the biggest challenge coaching-wise that I’ve ever had.”

The Aggies were picked to finish ninth in the Mountain West Conference.

They finished first.

The rebuilding project took, oh, about a month. They won 17 of their first 18 games. Maybe they should rebuild every season.

They finished the regular season and conference tournament with 27 wins (against six losses) and landed a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in six years. They’re the best team nobody saw this season, tucked away in Logan and the Mountain West. Ranked No. 20 in the latest AP poll, they were assigned the eighth seed in the Midwest Region and will meet ninth-seeded TCU Friday in Indianapolis.

All of which should make USU fans nervous. When the going gets good, the good get going. Coaches don’t stay long when they win a lot of games. On the other hand, it never seems to matter. The Aggies have won 26 or more games four times in six seasons, with three different coaches, advancing to the NCAA Tournament each time.

And that’s where the fun stops. Since 1970, they have made 18 tournament appearances and lost 16 of them in the first round and two in the second round. They haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2001.

After Craig Smith left USU to take the head coaching job at Utah, after Ryan Odom left USU to take the head coaching job at Virginia Commonwealth (now that hurt), the Aggies signed up Sprinkle. He had served as the head coach at Montana State for four seasons after two decades as an assistant coach. He made the most of it, with an 81-43 record and two NCAA tourney appearances. He showed up at USU last spring and found an empty locker room.

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After Odom’s departure, USU players tripped over each other running to the transfer portal, leaving for VCU (to rejoin Odom), Creighton, Utah Valley, etc. Every player who had scored a point on last year’s team — there were 10 of them — were gone. Sprinkle ran to the portal himself to sign nine players to go with four freshmen. That included two players from England, one from Costa Rica, one from France and five from Utah (two from Cache Valley).

Voila: instant team.

Two of team’s best players include Great Osobor — that’s his name, not an adjective, or maybe it’s that, too, although it could refer to his homeland, Great Britain — followed Sprinkle to Cache Valley. Osobor leads the team with 18 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. Darius Brown II, via Montana State and Cal State Northridge, averages 12 points and a team-leading 6.5 assists (10th most in the nation).

Ian Martinez, who’s on the see-the-world program via college basketball — he came to Logan via Costa Rica, Maryland and Utah — averages 13 points. Freshman Mason Falslev, from Sky View High just up the road from USU and one of the three returning players from last year, averages 11 points. Nine players average 10 or more minutes per game.

“I can’t even believe we did it (in this era),” Sprinkle told the San Diego Union. “We didn’t have a lot of NIL money to give these guys like a lot of teams do. We were very, very fortunate to get all these players without a lot of (NIL) money.”

When asked by the Union if he had ever wondered what he had gotten himself into when he saw the depleted team at USU, he said, “Oh, yeah, for about the first five months, almost every day. It was hard. That’s just the truthful answer. It was every day.”

“What they’ve done is amazing,” San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher told the Union a few weeks ago. “For Coach Sprinkle not to return a point from last year, with all new guys, and get off to a 19-2 start is unheard of. Usually, you would think it would take a full year to get everybody acclimated to each other. Usually, to be a good team you need some returning pieces who have been in the system.”

No one can accuse Sprinkle of winning with the talent that the previous coach left behind. He has done this alone, aided by the transfer portal. This has earned him national attention. Sprinkle is one of the 15 official semifinalists for the Naismith Coach of the Year award (along with BYU coach Mark Pope). You know what that means. A couple of major media outlets have listed Sprinkle as a leading candidate for the head coaching job at the University of Washington. That means the cycle could start all over again next fall, with the coach leaving and the players following him out the door.

Not that it worked out so badly last time.

Utah State coach Danny Sprinkle, left, celebrates with students after defeating San Jose State in a game Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2024, in Logan, Utah. Sprinkle will lead his surprising Aggies into the NCAA Tournament Friday, where they will face the Big 12's TCU Horned Frogs in Indianapolis. | Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via Associated Press