LOGAN – A 5 a.m. text message woke Ryan Odom up in his hotel bed. The head coach of the Utah State men’s basketball team had been trying to rest in preparation for his team’s Mountain West Conference Tournament semifinal game against Boise State. But a group text of 20-plus players and coaches were flooding Odom’s phone, preventing just that. The messages weren’t from current players and coaches, though. These came from Odom’s days as the head coach of UMBC.
That morning, March 10, marked the five-year anniversary of UMBC upsetting Vermont in the American East Conference Tournament championship game — a game won on a Jairus Lyles 3-pointer made just four seconds before the final buzzer. Less than a week after that victory, Odom, Lyles and the rest of the Retrievers achieved sports immortality by becoming the first 16 seed to defeat a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The messages in the group chat didn’t begin by reminiscing about either of those wins. Initially, those players and coaches were congratulating Odom — along with forward Dan Akin and assistant coach Nate Dixon, current Aggies who were part of that UMBC squad — on advancing in the Mountain West Tournament. Eventually, though, the conversation evolved into sharing old memories from that fateful season five years ago. Not just about the win everyone remembers them for, but the little things they will remember each other for.
“It was just funny stuff…I was in tears laughing,” Odom said. “It was just all memories from a season. Times spent together. Making fun of the coaches to whatever. It just reminded me of how special it is to be a part of a team, a winning team, and one that is fortunate enough to go to the NCAA Tournament.”
If there’s any similarity between this year’s Utah State team and the 2017-18 UMBC team in Odom’s mind, it’s that both teams gave themselves the chance to create memories with the trip to the NCAA Tournament. And it’s something Odom reminded his current players about during the Mountain West Tournament.
“I told them…you’ve already created all these cool memories that you’ll have the rest of your life,” Odom said. “Funny stuff that’s happened, and winning. And when you do both of those things, everybody feels good. There’s only one team from here that’s going to feel awesome because it’s going to end for everybody. But it doesn’t’ mean that because you don’t win the whole thing that you didn’t live an amazing season.”
What UMBC did five years ago was special on a national scale. If the Aggies win on Thursday, it won’t much more nationally than frustrate the people who didn’t pick that particular upset on their bracket. But for Utah State, fans in Logan, and the program in general there’s a lot at stake. The last eight times USU has made the tournament, dating back to the 2002-03 season, the team lost in the opening game. Not since March 15, 2001, during Stew Morrill’s third season as head coach in Logan has Utah State won a game in the NCAA Tournament.
Sam Merrill, who lost in the only NCAA Tournament game he played in in 2019, and was robbed of another game due to COVID-19, made sure to remind Odom what this latest chance means to Aggie Nation.
“He told me, ‘No pressure,’” Odom said.
Of course, as Merrill’s possibly-facetious comment indicated, there is a certain amount of pressure on this Aggie team. Even the best Utah State teams over the last 22 years — the two Stew Morrill 30-win teams of 2008-09 and 2010-11, even Craig Smith’s 2018-19 and 2020-21 teams — couldn’t break through despite their collective greatness. Is this year’s team better than the best Aggie squads of the 21st century?
Well, maybe. Depends on what happens on Thursday.
A loss in the first round won’t ruin Utah State’s season. It didn’t ruin things for the Aggies in any of those previous seasons, which are still remembered fondly. This year’s team won’t be all that much different. A 26-win team (at minimum) that finished tied for second in the regular season standings and finished runner-up in the conference tournament is one with plenty to be proud of and plenty to look back fondly on.
“This particular Utah State team,” Odom said, “has created so many memories this year that will last a lifetime. And a lot of it isn’t about cutting the nets down. It’s about the times that you spend together. And that we’re all fortunate to enjoy each other’s company. And so I think that’s what the rest of this time that we have, we’re going to enjoy it.”
But there’s another level that can be reached. The kind of level that results in reminiscing text chats five years down the road that wake you up a 5 a.m.
“Any time you win in the NCAA Tournament you’re fortunate to advance,” Odom said. “It’s a special thing. It takes it a step higher. It’s certainly something that these guys aspire to do.”
Forty minutes on Thursday will determine a lot of how this team will be remembered. On the one hand these Aggies can be remembered as having a very respectable season, for reasons stated above. Or they can be what Odom said: “a step higher.” A team unique in Utah State history.