Utah State head coach Danny Sprinkle instructs his team against the UNLV during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 13, 2024, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Ian Maule)
LOGAN — The basketball world is running out of superlatives to describe the complete insanity that is Utah State’s basketball season. Sitting at 19-2 and ranking 17th in the AP and Coaches polls despite the oft-referenced complete roster rebuild over the summer, the Aggies aren’t just a feel-good story. They are now a force in the Mountain West the rest of the teams, most of whom were picked to finish better than the currently first-place Aggies, must reckon with.
Sprinkle can hardly believe his own team’s success and re-iterated his feelings to the media on Thursday regarding how rare this type season is given what precipitated it.
“It’s probably a bad standard that we’re setting for a lot of ADs out there because they’re going to think that a lot of teams can do this,” Sprinkle said Thursday morning. “If there was a hundred teams that had to do what we did, three or four of them are going to win at the level that we’ve won so far.”
Even with all of the success, the accolades, mid-season awards, rankings rolling in for himself and Utah State, Sprinkle often speaks of how much further his team has to go, the improvements they must make. Case in point, his comments when asked about Great Osobor and his 31-point, seven-rebound performance against San Jose State that included 19 free throw attempts, a number just three off the single-game school record.
“(Osobor said) ‘Coach I had 30’ and I was like ‘yeah you should’ve had 40,’” Sprinkle said following Tuesday’s game. “That’s what I expect, like, clean up your free throw shooting. You missed two or three wide open layups and you should have had 40. And that’s I want him to think like. Don’t leave any points on the table. Now, yeah, am I happy with 31 and seven (rebounds)? Yeah, it’s terrific. But you guys were all there. You saw some of his sloppy turnovers. You saw some of his missed layups. He’s too good of a player to do that. And he knows my standard for him and it’s really high.”
That always-pushing-his-players mentality isn’t just applied to Osobor as Sprinkle’s pushed to get more out of all of his players, especially his beast athletes. And it’s not just his players that Sprinkle is expecting more from. Tuesday’s win also marked 100 career head coaching victories for Sprinkle, and while he is on the faster side of reaching that early milestone (getting there in just 145 games), he put that total in context, comparing it to the 620 career wins by one of his predecessors at Utah State, Stew Morrill.
“One hundred wins is not very much,” Sprinkle said. “I got a lot of work to do.”
The coaches, players and even fans have eagerly adopted the mantra “Rent is due,” a constant reminder that every win can only be savored for so long and that the next game will require just as much effort if another victory is achieved. Every win is a step in the right direction, but no one step will get the Aggies to the coveted prizes of March. Sprinkle has dedicated quite a bit of time to keeping his players on their toes, always reminding them of how much better they can be and how much better they must be as the season gets more and more difficult.
Utah State’s upcoming stretch of games is a great example of how no matter what has already happened, the rent will still come due again. The Aggies may have a solid hold on first place, being a game up on Boise State (plus currently holding a tiebreaker on the Broncos) and two games up on New Mexico and San Diego State, the next six games for the Aggies will really determine whether they’ll keep a hold on that first place spot.
Five of USU’s next six games will be against teams in the top 65 of the NET — two games against San Diego State (Feb. 3 and Feb. 20), Nevada (Feb. 6), Boise State (Feb. 10), and Colorado State (Feb. 17). Even the one game that doesn’t fit into that top-65 of the NET won’t be an easy task. Sandwiched between the matchups against the Broncos and Rams is a trip to Laramie to take on Wyoming. The Cowboys are a rapidly rising team who have already knocked off two top Mountain West teams — Nevada and Colorado State — when those sides visited Arena-Auditorium.
The Aggies’ title aspirations will very likely rest on this stretch of games. They’ve built enough of a cushion that going 3-3 in these six games wouldn’t sink their chances, but it’d force USU to sweat through road games against Fresno State and San Jose State along with intensifying what will already be an exciting rematch with New Mexico in the regular season finale.
Should the Aggies do any better than 3-3, it would create a potentially massive lead in the standings. It would mean possibly sweeping Boise State and splitting with San Diego State, giving USU a tiebreaker and/or preventing losing tiebreakers to either team. And even though a chance to split with the Lobos would still have to wait, the Lobos sit two games behind the Aggies and are just as unlikely to go undefeated the rest of conference play. If USU went 4-2 or even 5-1 it would make any tiebreakers unlikely to come into effect.
Nothing has come easy for Utah State this season. Not roster building, not wins, not conference play. But that hasn’t stopped the Aggies from winning. And if USU comes out of these next six games relatively unscathed, perhaps it’ll be time to stop being surprised at how good this team is.