Utah State’s 11-1 start and 10-game win streak, recently extended by its thrilling win over San Francisco, is one of the best starts to a season for any Aggie team and its best in 11 years. Only three other seasons in program history — 2012-13 (14-1), 2008-09 (24-1), 2003-04 (20-1) — have matched this year’s crew by starting at least 11-1. And while this year’s start is on the higher end for win-to-loss ratio for USU as a program, Aggie fans are used to great starts to pretty much any season and very often see those expectations met.
One need only gesture in the direction of the Stew Morrill era to find out where Utah State faithful get their expectations of great basketball, but recent seasons, coming long after Morrill’s retirement, have proven to be highly successful, especially at the beginning of the year. In the last six years, including this season, the Aggies have started no worse than 8-3 through the first 11 games.
Even with 3 coaches in the last 6 seasons, Utah State has started off basketball seasons well with no exception.
2018-19 — 9-2
2019-20 — 13-2
2020-21 — 12-3
2021-22 — 8-3
2022-23 — 10-1
2023-24 — 11-1
Winning happens in Cache Valley.
— Jason Walker (@jwalker_sports) December 18, 2023
Year after year, fans expect wins, and Utah State has delivered. Even with two coaches over the previous five years, the Aggies have qualified for four NCAA Tournaments and earned an NIT bid, with two conference tournament titles and one share of a regular season conference title baked into that run.
Winning simply happens for Utah State basketball.
And yet one can’t help but marvel at the most recent example of this seeming law of sports the basketball gods seem intent on sticking to. Utah State had just about any offseason obstacle thrown at it one can imagine (the list of said obstacles being all-too-well-known around Aggie Nation). The loss of its head coach late in the coaching carousal season and subsequent departure of not just three graduating seniors but nine players into the transfer portal, including first team All-Mountain West guard Steven Ashworth.
Utah State head coach Danny Sprinkle is as surprised as anyone that his team is playing this well.
“I’m shocked, oh yeah,” Sprinkle said following the Aggies’ win over San Francisco. “I would have sent you to the psych ward if you’d have told me that in October.”
There are several ways in which Utah State is well ahead of schedule. For one, numerous players have made significant jumps this season. Darius Brown is averaging a career-high in assists (7.6) with his average ranking second in the NCAA with his total assists (91) ranking first in the country and his assist-to-turnover ratio (5.35 to 1) also ranking first. Great Osobor, last year’s Sixth Man of the Year in the Big Sky is playing at a level to be this year’s Mountain West Newcomer of the Year, leading the team in averages of points (17.5), rebounds (9.1) and blocks (1.8).
There’s Ian Martinez and Mason Falslev, who are also each playing their first season with the Aggies (granted, in different ways with Martinez transferring from Maryland and Falslev being a redshirt freshman), both averaging double figures as key wing scorers. Martinez even earned Mountain West Player of the Week for his pair of stellar games last week.
For all the great individual play, the team dynamic is what Sprinkle keyed in on, among other things, that have made this team great through 12 games.
“I gotta credit them. They’re the ones that came together,” Sprinkle said. “They’re the ones that come together and play for each other, and it’s special when that happens.”
Among other ways this team is way better way sooner than expected is in toughness and selflessness, the former being something Sprinkle had concerns with during the summer.
“If you guys saw us practice in the summer, we’re way tougher than we were in the summer,” Sprinkle said. “And I firmly believe, I know, you can coach toughness. Even to guys that may not be that tough, you can make them tough. And I knew that’s what this group had to do to have a chance to be successful.
“And they’ve all bought in and they do it for each other. We don’t have any selfish guys, you know, even when our offense struggles, we’re still moving the ball for the most part, and getting guys shots.”
What this start means to the rest of the season is harder to determine. Making the NCAA Tournament has gone from a vague hope in the preseason to something fans are eagerly beginning to anticipate along with votes in the AP Top 25 (USU did not receive any votes in the latest poll released on Monday) and spots in the latest tournament bracket projections according to Bracket Matrix, which tracks bracketologist’s work across the internet, records the Aggies being in six of 23 currently public bracket projections). But there’s _ game to be played, and a lot can happen.
Sprinkle isn’t ready to make any kind of statement on how he thinks. Following Utah State’s win over Northwest Nazarene, Sprinkle was asked where he feels the team stacks up against the rest of the Mountain West and he replied “I don’t know.”
“We were picked ninth,” Sprinkle said. “So until we do something about that, then that’s all I’ve got to base it on.”