As the season reaches February, it’s time to start showing who the contenders and pretenders are, except in this case, we are going to make a case for a mid-major team, the Utah State Aggies making a run in the NCAA Tournament come March and a competitive Mountain West awaiting them.
The Utah State Aggies made the NCAA Tournament last season with. a 26-9 record and came out of nowhere and after only qualifying for the NIT in 2021-22 season, so far this season they’ve shown that despite fresh faces and a new leader under Head Coach Danny Sprinkle, they can still win at the pace they won with last season. The Mountain West have definitely had their fair share of great basketball teams and great NBA prospects over the course of the last decade or so. This season is no different, the Utah State Aggies are atop the competitive conference heading into February after a win over Boise State in OT 90-84, that game was played on the road at Boise State, which is an added bonus as a road victory. All of this success for the Utah State Aggies.
The New Mexico Lobos (18-3, 6-2), the Aggies lone conference defeat on January 16th, are currently in second place as of January 30th. The Mountain West also boasts San Diego State, a mainstay at the top of the conference, the Nevada Wolfpack, and the Colorado State Rams, all of which have given this Aggies squad a battle in the first month of conference play.
This Utah State Aggies has spent the first month of 2024 in AP and Coaches Top 25 poll and with non conference wins vs. Akron (15-5, 1st in the MAC) and Santa Clara, (15-7, 3rd in WCC) notably to build their momentum heading into conference play where they have won six games to date, playing the San Jose Spartans on Tuesday January 30th in San Jose.
The Case For the Utah State Aggies
The Utah State Aggies certainly score a lot of points and that’s in large part to their leading scoring Great Osobor, the junior forward, who averages 18.6ppg, who is also their leading rebounder and a true double-double threat in the area of points and rebounds. He was a Montana State transfer who has taken advantage of the faith his coach has shown in him. Point guard Darius Brown II has also been responsible for some great performances, as he’s been key to their turnover with 11.7 per game as a team. Not to be forgotten is the long distance threat that Ian Martinez, the senior guard poses.
In January, he’s hit 37% of his shots from 3pt range. Freshman Mason Falslev has also shown himself to be a consistent factor as he’s averaged 11.6ppg and 4.6rpg. The Utah State have given up 68 points a game, despite that they are a team that is the 25th best rebounding team in the nation, and helping their cause is a top 50 ranked defense against the 3pt shot. The offense is plentiful and in past years that definitely has not been the issue.
Last season, the Utah State Aggies were coached by Ryan Odom, he coached them to a 26-9 record and were rewarded with the 10th seed in the NCAA Tournament. However, they lost to the Missouri Tigers of the SEC, the shots were not falling in that game for the Aggies. This year’s team is better in almost every statistical category to last year’s team and the Strength of Schedule and other likely calculated metrics are also very similar. The Aggies will certainly need to maintain the pace in the month of February, but this isn’t the same team. In fact, there’s a completely different core group in play here. Last year’s team had six seniors and a coach in Ryan Odom who had nurtured and grew with that group of players in his two year stint with the team
. Coach Sprinkle has more ways to get points with his squad, he has three guards who all can provide a formula of responsible possession and getting themselves open shots and good looks. In the paint Osobor can do what he needs to do, as he has instant outlets to create instant points for the Aggies, this is how they can hurt opponents, and in the past we’ve seen Providence and Rhode Island as mid majors flourish with similar roster capabilities.
Dan Hurley’s best Rhode Island Rams squad led by EC Matthews and Stanford Robinson, that Rams team won 26 games and had it been for better clock management, they’d have beaten a Final Four Team in the Oregon Ducks who featured current Rockets F Dillon Brooks.
At Coach Sprinkle’s previous stop at Montana State Bobcats, who also made the NCAA Tournament last season in 2022-23 season before losing to 3rd seeded Kansas State from the BIg 12.
Depending on their seeding, they could catapult themselves as a Sweet 16 squad. The Aggies maintaining their form and and record through February is very likely, they’ve also shown that they’re battle tested in close games, this will work very well for them come March.
The Case Against Utah State
Utah State has certainly impressed and maintained their great form last season despite a complete roster overhaul. After all, they lost six seniors! For most mid majors, they would spell disaster, especially after losing their head coach in Ryan Odom. This team as I stated before is far more versatile and has more ability than last year’s NCAA Tournament squad that lost to Missouri.
The Utah State Aggies did lose a competitive game to the Bradley Braves in an OT defeat back in the early stretch of the season, of course games in November should hold too much weight, but the Utah State Aggies didn’t play a major conference opponent that would be NCAA bound and truly give them a test to see where they were. They give up 68 ppg and the best teams they’ve played are Akron (1st place team in the MAC) and Colorado State Rams in their own conference, even the Santa Clara Broncos face the same narrative despite their consistent success. It’s tough to get over that hurdle of winning a tournament game.
The NCAA Tournament Committee could also spell disaster for them as even in cases where teams have won 26-28 games, without major top 25 wins, over tough non conference wins, it’s tough to sway a conference champion over a power 5 at-large, they could be matched up with some of the mid tier Big 12 teams who face a tough game almost every game and will have depth to show for it as well. The Aggies struggled against the New Mexico Lobos, another team that will run the floor and score in bunches, however Coach Sprinkle’s squad gave up ninety points, and that could be a precursor for what could bring them for trouble.
Great Osobor being 6’8 250 lbs is an asset, however teams with size could use that to then have to exert more energy and he is so vital to how they rebound, how they start the break, and how they create better possession with his movement off the ball. The guards could be faced with having to shoot their way to stay in the game and that doesn’t bode well in the deeper parts of the NCAA Tournament, or in the wrong matchup.