Utah State 2023 Men’s Basketball Position Preview Part 1 — Guards – Cache Valley Daily

The HURD in the Glen Dee Smith Spectrum. Photo by Robert K. Scott

This is the first installment in a three-part series previewing the three main position groups for Utah State men’s basketball — Guards, Wings and Bigs.

With Utah State’s 2023-24 men’s basketball season unofficially beginning in just a few days, it’s worth previewing each of the position groups prior to the team’s exhibition against Montana State-Billings on Friday and the official start of the season next Monday against South Dakota Mines. We’ll start at the top of the lineup with the guards.

The differentiation between what constitutes a “guard” and a “wing” here is a tad arbitrary (and you’ll see that we’ll go over players considered wings by the team itself that end up being considered guards in this preview). The working definition is basically players that are 6-foot-3 or shorter. Functionally, it limits the guard position group to guys that will only ever be the lead ball-handling guard (the traditional point guard role) or be a secondary ball-handler and/or off-ball guard.

Utah State’s current crop of guards has to fill the rather large shoes left by Steven Ashworth. The former First Team All-Mountain West guard led the Aggies in scoring and provided an elite scoring punch with his shooting. There’s some potential for a few of USU’s guards to develop into every-night scorers, but it’s more likely that the replacement of Ashworth’s scoring in the backcourt will be filled by committee.

In an ideal world, the starting backcourt would probably be Darius Brown and Ian Martinez, transfers from Montana State and Maryland, respectively. Brown followed new head coach Danny Sprinkle from MSU and Martinez is returning to the Beehive State, having played one year at the University of Utah before traveling cross-country to play for the Terrapins for two seasons.

Brown and Martinez could form arguably the best defensive backcourt in the conference, with Brown being the reigning Big Sky Defensive Player of the year and Martinez being a high-level defensive player his entire career. Both have the size and quickness to guard almost any backcourt player and would easily embody the defensive toughness head coach Danny Sprinkle is trying to instill in this team.

The pair would also function as the heart of the team offensively. Sprinkle identified Martinez and Brown as the two players he trusts to go out and get their own shot. Martinez may have a little more potential in this area, but has room for growth, having been a bench player each of his three seasons, though his prowess is growing after last year in which he averaged a career-best 5.7 points including a career-high 40.3 percent on 3-pointers. Both are also high-level catch-and-shoot players, being able to relocate after initiating offense and becoming kick-out targets. You also get the best passing talent with this backcourt, mainly through Brown who’s averaged 4.6 assists per game in his 130-game career so far (Sprinkle also referred to Brown as the “only true point guard” on the team).

The astute reader will remember the use of the term “ideal world” and the use of auxiliary verbs like “would” and “could” and wonder what’s going on with that. It’s because Martinez may not be able to play this season. This being his second transfer (Utah to Maryland and now Maryland to USU) prior to graduation, Martinez isn’t guaranteed immediate eligibility like virtually all first-time transfers.

In fact, he specifically needs a waiver to avoid a one-year wait to play for the Aggies. Unfortunately, the odds of him being granted that waiver don’t look great seeing as players in similar scenarios — such as RaeQuan Battle, Jamille Reynolds and Aziz Bandaogo — have all seen waivers denied within recent days (though all players plan to appeal their denials).

If Martinez is denied a waiver, and can’t win an appeal, the job for the off-guard spot gets slightly more tricky. Two players, maybe three, would be in line for that spot. The thing is, both of the main candidates are considered to be wings by Sprinkle. Those two being Josh Uduje and Mason Falslev, two players that share the archetype of athletic scoring wing.

In this case, Uduje getting time at this off-ball guard spot is not really up to him. He’s far more suited to playing small forward, i.e. more of a true wing and not a secondary ball-handler, and is going to be getting minutes on the wing regardless (and will get a bit more discussion in the wing preview). But if Falslev doesn’t prove he’s ready for minutes then Sprinkle would be running out of suitable players for that spot in the rotation and might move Uduje up a position.

Falslev has a lot of expectations place upon him. He starred at a local high school, Sky View, winning a state championship and putting together several highlight reels worth of great plays. He redshirted for the team last year, working his way into shape coming off a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and is now poised for the jump into local stardom.

“He’s been thrust into a position where expectations are on him now,” Sprinkle said. “You’re not redshirting and it’s not high school basketball anymore. It’s go time. He’s reacted really well and he’s had some great moments in practice. And he’s shooting the ball well and we’re gonna need him to do that.”

The final guard expected to be in the rotation is Javon Jackson. He’d probably technically be in the running to start alongside Brown if Martinez isn’t eligible, but that’s less likely because Jackson is being developed to be the backup point guard. He has a solid foundation as a scoring guard, being an efficient scorer at the Division II level with a scoring average of 15.8 points and shooting percentages of 45.5 percent overall and 39.4 percent from three. However, being the “true” point guard Sprinkle noted Brown being is not something Jackson has yet.

“He’s a scoring guard. He’s kind of a combo,” Sprinkle said. “He’s been doing a really good job of playing the point. Because obviously when we practice head-to-head he’s got to play there. And he’s gotten better. Every week he’s making more shots, he’s running the offense a little crisper.”

The only player likely to see little time this season is freshman Jaxon Smith. He’s a walk-on coming out of Woods Cross who made his mark in the prep ranks as a prolific shooter. Though unlikely to break the rotation, it’s certainly not unheard of for walk-ons to find their way into key roles at Utah State (see also, Abel Porter, Justin Bean and Trevin Dorius).

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