This is part one in a two-part series going over potential expectations for Utah State men’s and women’s basketball for the 2023-24 season.
Expectations are a hard thing to set when so little is known about something, perhaps more so when there’s a perceived expectation but it may not match what a realistic expectation should be. Utah State’s men’s basketball team is stuck in that quandary. No one knows who this team is, but everyone keeps expecting them to be good despite a unique offseason.
The Aggies have won at least 20 games four times in the last five years, qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in each of said season, and winning 18 games with an NIT berth the one season they didn’t eclipse 20 wins. USU has an overall record of 118-49 (.707 win percentage), won a regular season conference title and brought home two conference tournament titles. The program has sent on two players onto NBA rosters, some into the G-League, and even more to overseas pro leagues. Utah State has been a model of mid-major success.
There’s just one not-so-little hiccup this run of success will have to find its way around which can be illustrated in one stat. It’s a stat that has and will find its way into every preview, breakdown, broadcast and any other conversation about Utah State until the end of the season (and perhaps beyond). The Aggies return zero, absolutely zero, points production from last year. All 2,736 points USU scored in the 2022-23 season were accounted for by players that are no longer Aggies. The only returning production of any kind comes by way of walk-on Landon Brenchley who during last season played eight minutes (across six appearances), attempted one free throw, grabbed one offensive rebound and four defensive rebounds, and recorded two assists.
That’s it. That’s all of USU’s returning production. A handful of rebounds, a free throw attempt (that missed) and two assists.
It’s going to be a tad tiresome to hear this over and over but the reason we will is because of how monumental that fact is in defining this offseason and setting the stage for whatever happens this season.
Going hand-in-hand with the simply astounding fact that no scoring production is returning to Utah State is that there are 13 newcomers, nine of them being transfers. There’s also a new coach, Danny Sprinkle, who replaces Ryan Odom who packed his bags and left for VCU. The element of the unknown permeates the entire team, both on an individual and team-wide level. Even Sprinkle isn’t sure what he has with this team.
“I don’t know what our potential is,” Sprinkle said. “We still need to see some separation at some positions. And we’re probably not going to be able to see that separation until mid-December once guys get on the court and see who produces and who makes those game-winning plays. Who’s physical and tough and who will make the extra pass.”
As such it’s little surprise that in the Mountain West preseason poll, the Aggies were picked to finish ninth, the lowest they’ve been picked in the MW poll since 2014 and tied for second-lowest ever since joining the conference in 2013. Sprinkle certainly wasn’t caught off guard.
“I’m surprised we’re that high,” Sprinkle said, with a touch of humor. “Nobody knows us. I still don’t know our team. We’re still getting to know some of these guys and how they play, fitting them all together.”
The recruiting task handed to Sprinkle was an incredibly unenviable one, but he managed to reel in an entirely new roster with some pretty good talent, drawing praise for his efforts from his peers in the conference.
“He was given a tough hand by the exodus and coming in late,” said Boise State head coach Leon Rice. “In this day and age, if you don’t hire somebody quickly and get things in order for him you can really leave him behind the 8-ball. Danny made the best possible moves he could make in the short amount of time he had. Really remarkable what he did with this roster and with his staff.”
One overarching theme with Sprinkle’s recruiting class is how many former high-level recruits he’s brought in that haven’t yet managed to make their mark on the collegiate stage. Four players on the Aggies’ roster made it onto the RSCI Top 100 recruits list in their respective high school graduation class. Max Agbonkpolo was 54th with Isaac Johnson 70th in the Class of 2019. Ian Martinez was 60th in 2020, and Jackson Grant was 65th in 2021.
All of these players have thus far failed to live up to that lofty potential, some, like Grant and Johnson, barely even made it onto the floor with their previous teams. But a new leaf has been turned and all have a chance to make things right.
“That’s one thing that I’ve talked to those guys about. They need to have a chip on their shoulder,” Sprinkle said. “For whatever reason Jackson Grant’s not at Washington. He didn’t play there. Max Agbonkpolo went from USC to Wyoming to hear. Ian Martinez was at Utah and Maryland. OK, now it’s time to have a chip on your shoulder. There’s no more hiding. There’s no excuses. We’ve got to produce and it’s our job to help you produce. That’s one of our things that we’ve talked a lot about is playing with that chip on your shoulder. They have a point to prove and hopefully they all have great seasons.”
So what’s the potential of this team? If you want to be optimistic and point to precedent, there’s the fact that the Aggies haven’t finished worse than a tie for eighth (albeit with tiebreakers they’ve been the nine seed in the conference tournament twice) since joining the conference. In fact, the last two times USU has been picked eighth or worse in the preseason poll, 2018 and 2022, the team ended up at the top of the standings — tied for first in 2018-19 and tied for second in 2022-23.
That’s probably being a little too optimistic, though. New Mexico head coach Richard Pitino noted how hard it can be to rebuild within a year in the Mountain West, something he knows full well seeing as he had to revamp the Lobos’ program and went 13-19 his first season before upping that to a 22-12 record last year. The Aggies also aren’t in the same position as those ’18-19 and ’22-23 teams.
“They’ve got the pieces in place, it’ll happen. It’s just a matter of how long. And people are never patient anymore,” Pitino said. “But I think Danny has inherited a much different situation than the last couple coaches did. It’ll take some time but he’s an elite recruiter. He’s a great person and a terrific coach.”
Sprinkle isn’t exactly targeting a number or specific achievement when it comes to success.
“I don’t want to put a win total on it,” Sprinkle said. “But as long as we’re continuing to get better and we continue to be disciplined and play good. I think we’ll like where we’re at at the end of March.”
It’s a smart tactic for Sprinkle to not attach any numbers or achievements to this year as any realistic goals don’t live up to what Aggie fans have become accustomed to over the last five seasons, and targeting those fan expectations as a team goal could be setting this squad up for failure.
For Utah State to repeat what happened in 2018-19 or 2022-23, it’ll need players that are currently relatively unknown to the world to become borderline pro prospects almost overnight. Both those teams had returners that became stars the next season — Sam Merrill in ‘18-19 and Steven Ashworth in ‘22-23. This year’s team will not benefit from a returner that holds the potential for the jump both of those players made in those respective seasons (unless you want to count a couple of Aggies that redshirted last year).
Are there any Aggies that could make the jump to stardom this year? There’s a few candidates. Martinez is one. Sprinkle described him, along with Darius Brown, as one of the few players on this roster with the ability to go out and get a shot on their own. Although, with Martinez, there’s the worry that he will be ineligible to play this year due to him being a non-graduate player that has transferred for a second time. He’ll need a waiver to play, a waiver the NCAA has been largely unwilling to grant to players in similar situations to Martinez.
Great Osobor is another breakout candidate. One of two players to follow Sprinkle from Montana State, he holds untapped potential as he averaged 10.1 points in just 19.0 minutes per game last year playing behind four-time all-conference big Jubrile Belo. His ability to score points via post-ups should end up being among the best in the conference. With a big bump in minutes, it’s possible to see a big bump in impact for the junior forward.
Any other number of players the Aggies have could find themselves as a key contributor for the team. Josh Uduje comes in as the player with the highest points per game average (among those with Division I experience at least). Brown, another player following Sprinkle from MSU, is the “only true point guard” according to Sprinkle, which naturally makes Brown a player to keep a close eye on, especially at that position.
As a team, the addition of an entirely new roster and new coaching staff put them all at square one in terms of creating an identity. The Aggies have gone through multiple identities in the last five years, from a 3-point chucking team in the last year of Tim Duryea, to the defensive stalwarts with Craig Smith and then a top-level shooting team led by Ryan Odom.
This year? All indications are the team is swinging back to defense and a physical play style. Sprinkle has been hammering that home in his public statements and, of course, to his players in practice.
“That’s one thing I’m non-negotiable on. We’re gonna be physical,” Sprinkle said. “Cause I know that’s what you have to do to win in this league.”
A great deal of this team looks well-positioned to be capable of defending at a high level. Osobor and Kalifa Sakho both possess great interior defensive potential, Brown is a former Defensive Player of the Year at point guard, and Max Agbonkpolo could be a highly versatile 6-foot-9 wing defender.
The potential is there, with talent and measurables to be found across the roster, but again, it’s all on paper until this season gets going.
In terms of national expectations, none are high but none are particularly low on the Aggies either. Ken Pomeroy’s “KenPom” ranking slots Utah State 101st among all teams, as does Evan Miyakawa’s rankings. Erik Haslam’s “Haslemetrics” places the Aggies at 83rd, the most optimistic of the more mainstream advanced metrics currently out there.
Utah State in National Computer Rankings
|15-13 (8-10 in MW)
The fact these computer rankings have the Aggies as high as they do is a testament to Utah State’s previous success. Despite losing so much it’s hard for anyone that’s followed USU’s program in recent years to expect anything less than a winning record and some quality play in the Mountain West. And that history is something that has the rest of the conference convinced they won’t be able ignore the Aggies this year.
“I think they’re going to be highly competitive, just like everybody else,” said Nevada head coach Steve Alford. “And it’s going to make an outstanding conference season again.”
Meeting the standard set by previous seasons will be tough. But that’s the burden of setting the bar. You have to reach it year after year and few care what excuses you use when you fail to reach it.