Utah State’s Taylor Funk (23) and Steven Ashworth (3) embrace following a loss in a first-round college basketball game against Missouri in the NCAA Tournament in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, March 16, 2023. (AP Photo/José Luis Villegas)
LOGAN – If you look at tangible accomplishments made by this year’s Utah State men’s basketball team you wind up a bit empty-handed. Certainly a lot of “almosts,” but never the ultimate winner. The Aggies didn’t win the Mountain West regular season, they finished tied for second. They didn’t win the conference tournament, losing in the championship game. And in the NCAA Tournament USU came up short in its first game, the last chance to make this a unique season in program history.
And yet, by no means could this season be considered a failure. With a 26-9 overall record, it’s the eighth-best USU record of the 21st century (which includes the meat of the Stew Morrill era) and the third-best of the Mountain West era. And in the end, the players will remember the year fondly despite their shortcomings.
“Made the best memories of my life with these guys,” forward Taylor Funk said. “They’re my brothers. Credit to the coaching staff for bringing me out here. Wasn’t easy, you know? We had our ups and downs. Just the attitudes on this team has been always positive. Steven, this kid’s one of the best leaders I ever been around in my life.”
For the coaching staff, there’s nothing but praise and love. A team Odom said had “no problems, no issues. Just love in the locker room for one another.”
“These guys have given the coaching staff, Cache Valley, the state of Utah for that matter, anybody that loves basketball, a tremendous amount of joy this season because of how they handle themselves, not only on the court but off the court,” Odom said. “They’re always smiling, always looking to help one another. It’s what being on a team’s all about. You develop these memories that will last a lifetime. You’re forever connected.”
“That’s what makes college athletics and team sports so fun,” Odom continued. “Even though it hurts right now, as we begin to separate from it, as we go forward, then all it’s going to be is the laughs, right, the times together, the fun memories that we shared.
“That’s it. That’s really what it’s all about.”
The at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament is something that really cements this team as one of the best in recent years. It’s not something that’s been easy to do in Utah State history. Well do fans remember the 2003-04 season where the Aggies ended the year 25th in the AP Top 25 Poll but were snubbed from the tournament because they didn’t earn the auto-bid from the Big West. Even a top 25 ranking couldn’t get an at-large bid for Stew Morrill’s squads most years. But in the last three years, Utah State has two at-large bids. The program has grown.
Getting that end goal of an NCAA Tournament bid was a great capstone to an up-and-down season. The Aggies began on an almost all-time high by going 9-0 to start the season, tying the program’s record for longest undefeated start to a season. But then losses to Weber State and SMU dampened that early-season feeling. Then blowout losses to Boise State, Nevada and San Diego State, all within the month of January sent Utah State’s hopes of a regular season title — let alone an NCAA Tournament bid — spiraling. Losing back-to-back games against SDSU and SJSU in early February seemed to cement the idea that the Aggies weren’t a tournament team.
But USU embodied the slogan they’d parroted among each other all season: “champions always respond.” And in champion-like manner, the Aggies won seven straight games, spanning the last five games of the regular season and two games of the conference tournament. It turned a team no one expected to make noise in the postseason into a serious conference contender and a lock for the NCAA Tournament. The Aggies played their best basketball in the early days of March, just like the most storied teams of NCAA lore.
It wasn’t a perfect season. It wasn’t a banner season. It didn’t end the decades long drought of NCAA Tournament victories. And yet, Odom said it best.
The Aggies did bring joy to Cache Valley this year.
Along with that soliloquy, below is included player-by-player capsules, detailing how each player did and what the future may hold for the players that still have eligibility remaining.
- All-Mountain West First Team (Coaches vote)
- All-Mountain West Second Team (Media vote)
- Mountain West All-Tournament Team
- USU single-season record for 3-point attempts (256)
- 18th in Division I this year
- USU second-most single-season 3-pointers made (111)
- Sixth in Division I this year
- Led team in points (16.2)
- Led team in assists (4.5)
- Led team in steals (1.2)
- Led team in 3-point percentage (43.3)
The junior began the season as a bench player but quickly showed a vast improvement from his 2021-22 season. Ashworth set new career-highs in basically everything – points (16.2), assists (4.5), rebounds (3.3) steals (1.2) and even field goal (45.8) and 3-point percentage (43.3) despite a greater workload. Ashworth became an every-night threat on offense and by many advanced stats was among the best in the nation on that end of the court. In particular, Ashworth’s 3-point shooting was near-historic for the Aggies. He set a new program record for 3-point attempts in single season (256) and became just the second Aggie to ever hit 100 threes in a season (111). He came only three 3-pointers shy of Jaycee Carroll’s single-season record of 114.
For his efforts, Ashworth was named First Team All-Mountain West, the third Aggie to earn First Team honors in the Mountain West era and 25th Aggie to earn first team all-conference honors in program history.
Going forward, Ashworth projects as the keystone of the Aggies offense. Whether he’ll have more record-setting seasons remains to be seen, but if he does Ashworth could become the 3-point king in Logan. With two seasons of eligibility, Carroll’s career 3-point records are well within reach of Ashworth is willing to chase them. He’ll come close to breaking Carrol’s 3-point attempts record next year with similar numbers and could get to second-place in 3-pointers made. A fifth season (which Ashworth could use) might easily send him over the top. Not only that, Ashworth could join the 2,000-point club.
- All-Mountain West Honorable Mention (Media vote)
- Mountain West All-Tournament Team
- USU single-season record for 3-pointers made by a forward (81)
- Second on team in points (13.3 per game)
- Second on team in rebounds per game (5.5)
- Second on team in steals (0.9 per game)
- Second on team in 3-pointers made (81)
- Started in all 34 appearances for the team
Though Funk’s tenure at Utah State lasted just one year, he placed his name among the best 3-point shooters in program history — and certainly its best shooting forward. His 81 threes ranks 11th all-time at USU but are the most of any Aggie taller than 6-foot-5. His 13.3 points per game is the second-highest mark of his career. He set a new USU conference tournament record with his 32 points against New Mexico in the first round of the Mountain West Tournament. He had three games of at least six made 3-pointers, only the fourth Aggie since 2010 a have as many such games in a single season.
- All-Mountain West Honorable Mention (Coaches vote)
- Third on team in points (12.1 per game)
- Second on team in assists (4.1 per game)
- Third on team in steals (0.7 per game)
- Third on team in 3-pointers made (55)
- Started all 35 games for team
Though Shulga had to deal with the pressure of having his homeland literally invaded, the native of Ukraine put forth the best season of his career. He leapt into the starting lineup, going from 13.7 minutes per game last year to 30.9 this year. As such he set career-highs in all five statistical categories. Shulga was one of 14 players in the country to tally at least 400 points, 155 rebounds and 140 assists this season (as of Thursday). Shulga is one of three Aggies to put up those numbers in a single season since 1992-93, joining Spencer Nelson (2004-05) and Jared Quayle (2009-10).
Next year could feature another jump from Shulga, though obviously not as large as the jump he made this year. There’s potential for making second or even first team All-Mountain West instead of the honorable mention Shulga received this season.
- Mountain West Sixth Player of the Year (Media and Coaches vote)
- Led team in double-doubles (6)
- Led NCAA this year in double-doubles off the bench (6)
- Led team in rebounds (6.7 per game)
- Played in all 35 games for team
The sixth-year senior was about as close to being a starter as one can get without actually being a starter. Akin led the bench unit in points, led the entire team in rebounds and double-doubles, and wound up earning Sixth Player of the Year for the Aggies in the process. He was also one of the best defenders on the team, capable of defending any player from guard to center. Several times throughout the year, Akin matched up with bigger guards in halfcourt sets and came up with big stops in many of those cases.
Without Akin, this season would have looked very different. The Aggies may not have been lauded for depth, but it had one of the best bench players in the country.
- Third on team in rebounds (5.1 per game)
- Third on team in assists (2.6 per game)
- Third on team in 3-point percentage (38.6)
- Started all 35 games for team
The Australian wing has come a long way since his freshman season. A player who once struggle with the ball in his hand became a savvy passer, especially in the pick-and-roll. He also improved his 3-point shooting, going from one of the worst shooters in the country last year to 39.0 percent this year, third on a team that finished toward the top of the country in 3-point shooting as unit. Bairstow also brought the crowd to its feet time and time again with thunderous dunks, showcasing his athleticism and quickness in the halfcourt. His versatility as someone who could handle the ball, score, and defend nearly every position on the court was invaluable to the team.
Bairstow’s future is uncertain. He has another year of eligibility but is trending toward moving back to his native Australia and beginning a pro career there. His presence would be very welcome on the team given his improvements this year and production if he were to stay in Logan.
- Started all 35 games for the team
The senior center spent most of his career on the fringe of the Aggie rotation. The fact he got that far after beginning his career as a walk-on is remarkable enough, but Dorius managed to become the starting center for USU, starting all 35 games for the team this season. He didn’t play a ton of minutes, usually yielding center minutes to Akin, but he had his moments. Dorius scored a career-high 17 points against Air Force this season, one of seven double-digit scoring games of his season (in the three seasons prior Dorius had just four, total).
Dorius has a season of eligibility remaining, but it seems likely he won’t use it. He’s likely accomplished everything he wanted to with collegiate basketball and is ready to move on to other endeavors.
- Career-High 28 points vs Westminster
- Fourth-highest single-game total by USU player this season
In just his second season, Hamoda made a notable jump and showed quite a few flashes of scoring potential, along with great overall defensive prowess throughout the season. He scored 15 points against Bradley and then a career-high 28 against Westminster. He saw jumps in field goal percentage (36.4 to 41.2) and 3-point percentage (24.4 to 36.8) to go with his jump in minutes per game (7.9 to 13.8).
Unfortunately, Hamoda saw a bit of a drop-off from non-conference play to the conference schedule. He went from scoring 6.9 points per game with 3.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists and shooting splits of 42.9/39.4/84.6 in non-conference play to averaging 2.7 points, 1.8 rebounds and 0.4 assists on 38.9/33.3/75.0 shooting.
The key for Hamoda, though, is his potential. His freshman numbers were worst than his lower Mountain West play numbers and no one gave up on him then. He’s got all-conference talent and he’s shown the ability to improve before. And given the potential hole in USU’s starting lineup this upcoming season, an improved Hamoda could find his way into a larger role next season.
- Eclipsed 1,000 career points this year
- Played in all 35 games for team
In previous years, Eytle-Rock showcased what he could do on the court. As a junior at UMBC, he averaged 14.3 points per game. At Utah State, especially this year, Eytle-Rock showcased his leadership, positive attitude, and a true team mindset. Though he started all but one of the games he appeared in last year, Eytle-Rock was passed over for a starting job this year, that job going to Shulga. But the native of England didn’t go pouting into the night, instead finding ways to contribute in any way he could. And certainly this season would have gone quite differently without his quality contributions off the bench.
In two of Utah State’s biggest games of the season, Eytle-Rock stepped up. He scored 10 points in the Aggies’ comeback win over Nevada and had 13 in the conference tournament win over Boise State. In the Nevada game, not only did Eytle-Rock help power a win, he also crossed 1,000 career points, a landmark for the senior.
- Was third on team in assists before season-ending injury (3.3 per game)
- Started 10 of 13 games played
This season certainly isn’t the way one would want a senior season to go. Jones, one of the team’s four captains, did start off as a solid starting point guard, leading the team to a 10-2 record before sustaining a season-ending concussion against Boise State on Jan. 7. While Jones averaged career-lows in points per game (4.2) and assists per game (3.3) no one would have considered this the worst season of his career. The value he brought to the team came in leadership, toughness, and high IQ play on both ends of the court.
Jones has a season of eligibility left, but given his history of concussions, an early retirement from basketball may be in the young man’s best interest. He wasn’t among those honored on Utah State’s senior night, which may point to Jones’ intention to play, but he’s walking on thin ice with his long-term health.
Zapala has two seasons of eligibility left with the Aggies, years that will hopefully be filled with more action than the previous three. The Polish center has played only 205 minutes in three seasons, only 44 in this most recent campaign. Zapala is an aggressive rebounder and has shown touch around the rim. Time will tell if other skills like post defense, rim protection and overall offensive impact will get him past the fringe of the rotation and result in real minutes.
After returning from a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the product of Sky View High School sat another year, developing his game in preparation for showcasing the talents that won his alma mater a 4A state championship. The Aggies need more guard playmaking alongside Ashworth, especially with Eytle-Rock leaving. Perhaps Falslev is the answer.
Oddly enough, Johnson took his redshirt year after playing spot minutes for Oregon as a true freshman. This year he sat and learned behind two solid players in Akin and Dorius. Johnson is a different player altogether, though. He’s a stretch five who may see time as a power forward if the coaches want to try the 7-footer out in that role. He has the ability to hit threes and drive the basket against tough closeouts, talents often not seen in collegiate level players of his size.
The Aggies had three walk-ons this season – Landon Branchley, Conner Gillis and Connor Odom – none of whom factored into games and only appearing in blowout games. And while their futures likely don’t include any change to that fact, it’s worth noting those players for doing the often thankless job on scout team and being a positive influence on the team. Without their work, the team would be worse off.