Aggies fighting history and tough TCU team in NCAA first round – Cache Valley Daily

Utah State guard Darius Brown II (10) drives past San Diego State guard Darrion Trammell (12) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

INDIANAPOLIS, IN — There’s a lot at stake for Utah State this weekend. A lot wrapped up in a Friday evening basketball game against TCU in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

For one, there’s that whole 23-year drought for the Aggies when it comes to wins in the Big Dance. That and USU is supposed to be one of the flagship teams for the Mountain West in this tournament. The regular season conference champs of the MW were shown about as much respect as the rest of the league, getting an eight seed that’s matched them up with the eighth-place team in the Big 12.

On an individual basis, many of Utah State’s players, especially its leading rotation guys, are looking for their own first victory in the tournament. Darius Brown and Great Osobor both came up short with Montana State last year (Osobor went two straight years with first-round losses at MSU). Landon Brenchley, Mason Falslev and Isaac Johnson were all on the Aggies for last year’s first-round loss to Missouri.

And, of course, Danny Sprinkle has lacked wins himself, both as a coach and player. While a freshman playing at Montana State, the Bobcats lost in the opening round. Later as coach of the Bobcats, he lost two straight first-round games in 2022 and 2023.

There are a few guys on the team win NCAA Tournament wins under their belts. Ian Martinez played for Maryland in its first-round victory last year and Max Agbonkpolo was in the rotation during USC’s Elite Eight run in 2021

Amid all of this talk about wins on the sport’s biggest stage, there is one key to remember.

“At the end of the day it’s just a basketball game,” Darius Brown said to the media on Thursday. “No matter where it is or what type of setting.”

Past all the lights, storylines, festivities and marketing, one of Utah State and TCU is going to play a better basketball game Friday and that team will advance to the second round and the other team’s season will be over.

The keys for a USU victory seem to be pretty simple, though far harder to execute in practice. TCU is a team with top-level length — four of its likely starters stand 6-foot-7 or taller — and it’s used that length plus athleticism to become one of the best teams in the country in creating turnovers, scoring in transition and in grabbing offensive rebounds.

The Horned Frogs rank 15th in the country in steals, 35th in offensive rebounds and 16th in transition points per game.

“Our ball movement, our ball movement has to be on point because they’re one of the best transition offensive teams in the country,” Sprinkle said. “If you let them start getting going with that off silly turnovers and live ball turnovers, it’s a recipe for disaster. Then once you get them set in their offense, you have to rebound. They’re one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, and so really the game is going to start tomorrow, when they shoot it and that ball goes up on the rim, we have to have some contact box-outs, and you have to go get it.”

If the Aggies can protect the ball and rebound the basketball, that’s pretty much the game for them.

The unfortunate aspect of that statement is that the Aggies struggled to do those things in recent games. In the last three games, they’ve allowed an average of 11.7 offensive boards per game, most notably 13 to New Mexico and 14 to San Diego State. The latter of those two factored heavily into a 16-point loss in which USU yielded a 17-point first-half lead.

Fixing that issues became an immediate priority, and the fact their first-round opponent is one of the worst teams to face when struggling with defensive rebounding has only shown a need to accelerate the re-learning curve.

Utah State can’t just play from its heels all game, surviving punches from TCU on multiple fronts. The Aggies will have to be aggressive and setting the tone through their own strengths.

“It can’t take you two to three minutes to start the game, to be aggressive,” Sprinkle said. “You’ve got to get all of your anxiety and nerves out of the way and when that ball gets thrown up on the tip, you’ve got to be ready to rock and roll, which I expect our guys to be tomorrow.”

Osobor is the primary weapon in the Aggies’ arsenal. The Mountain West Player of the Year is a matchup nightmare and TCU, for all of its versatility on the wing, will have its own issues dealing with Osobor in the post.

Horned Frogs forward Xavier Cook revealed one way they may try to counter Osobor in the post.

“We’re just going to try to play physical with him. We didn’t see a lot of teams making him make like a cross-court pass, so we’re going to try to make him do a lot of those,” Cook said. “He’s been able to make easy passes out the same side, so we’re going to look to make him try to work and make cross-court passes and just make him work more for his buckets that he’s getting.”

Cook’s comments were said before Utah State took the podium and so Osobor was asked for his response to them.

“I’m pretty confident in my passing abilities. Whoever is open, I think I’m going to find them,” Osobor said.

Osobor can’t be the only Aggie playing their best in this game if the long-awaited tournament victory is to actually happen. Brown, Martinez and Falslev must have good games, especially on offense. Brown averaged 18 points per game over the last five games of the regular season, which played perhaps the biggest role in USU going 5-0 in that stretch to close out the outright MW title.

Falslev’s potential for a good game rests partly on his health. A shoulder injury has held the standout redshirt freshman back, but according to Sprinkle, Falslev “looks as good as he’s been in the last two and a half weeks” health-wise.

Projected Starters

Utah State: 27-6

  • G — Darius Brown (6-2, Sr.) – 12.4 points | 4.4 rebounds | 6.5 assists
  • G — Mason Falslev (6-3, Fr.) – 11.7 points | 4.5 rebounds | 2.5 assists
  • G — Ian Martinez (6-3, Jr.) – 13.0 points | 3.8 rebounds | 1.7 assists
  • F — Great Osobor (6-8, Jr.) – 17.5 points | 8.9 rebounds | 2.9 assists
  • C — Isaac Johnson (7-0, So.) – 6.3 points | 3.1 rebounds | 0.9 assists

TCU: 21-12

  • G — Jameer Nelson Jr. (6-2, Sr.) — 11.3 points | 2.6 rebounds | 3.3 assists
  • F — Chuck O’Bannon Jr. (6-7, Sr.) — 5.6 points | 2.5 rebounds | 0.8 assists
  • F — Emanuel Miller (6-7, Sr.) – 15.9 points | 5.9 rebounds | 2.7 assists
  • F — Micah Peavy (6-7, Sr.) – 11.1 points | 4.9 rebounds | 2.7 assists
  • C — Ernest Udeh (6-11, So.) – 4.3 points | 5.4 rebounds | 0.8 assists

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