A new era in men’s basketball at Utah State is about to tip off.
The Aggies will begin the 2020-21 season Tuesday night in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum Utah State hosts UC Davis with a scheduled start of 7:30 p.m. It could be a little later as the Aggie women also begin their season at home, hosting Westminister at 5 p.m.
First-year USU men’s head coach Ryan Odom was almost giddy Monday after practice. Perhaps the excitement from the athletes had rubbed off a bit.
“We are extremely exited about starting our season here at home,” Odom said. “The guys are fired up to get out on the court. They got a little taste in the exhibition game against Montana Western. It was fun to be in that environment that the Spectrum creates. It will be the first opportunity for our staff to experience it in a real game and certainly for some of the players that haven’t been a part of the team in previous years. They are really excited.”
The Aggies have not played a game in nearly two weeks. They hosted Montana Western in an exhibition on Oct. 27, blowing out the Bulldogs 81-51.
“We have been able to play against some other opponents, which has been good,” Odom said. “But practice is practice. As you get to this time of year, everyone is raring to go. I’m excited for these guys. ... I just explained to the team that the fans are really excited and you should be too. Let’s get ready.”
The Aggies better be ready. After all the practicing, they will now play five games over the next 12 days.
UC Davis played an exhibition game at William Jessup in Rocklin, California, on Oct. 30, in a benefit game for people affected in that area by the Dixie Fire. The California Aggies rallied to win, 74-64.
The Aggies from the Big West Conference went 10-8 last season, including 6-4 in league play. UC Davis had 11 games canceled because of COVID.
A pair of guards have the attention of Odom, who called the other Aggies a veteran team. UC Davis sophomores Ezra Manjon and Elijah Pepper earned preseason all-conference accolades. Manjon was the Big West Freshman of the Year in 2020.
“Both of their guards have started since the day they got on campus,” Odom said. “They both score the ball. One attacks the rim and gets to the basket, the other can shoot it from beyond the arc really well, over 40 percent from three last year, but he also can get to the basket.”
Last season Manjon led the team in scoring with 15.6 points a game. The 5-foot-11 guard is a tough to guard because of his quickness. Pepper averaged 14.7 points and 5.0 rebounds a contest.
“Manjon is a very fast point guard,” Odom said. “Manjon is really, really good at attacking the rim. He is not afraid to pass it. He is an aggressive guard, and we are going to have to deal with that.”
Coming up with steals and pushing it in transition has been a trademark of UC Davis since Jim Les became the head coach. The USU coach has not seen any film from this year, but expects the visitors to come in and be defensive minded.
“We are going to have to be ball tough tomorrow and really take care of the ball,” Odom said. “... We are also going to need to be steady and stern around the rim. All in all, I’m confident in our team and excited about the opportunity to play against another opponent.”
Utah State has seen two players on the UC Davis roster before, but in different uniforms. Forward Chritian Anigwe started his collegiate career at San Jose State, but became a starter at UCD last season, where he averaged 7.9 points and 4.9 rebounds. Guard Kane Milling started four games at Nevada last season and played in 26.
“It’s a good first opponent for us,” Odom said. “They are going to give us challenges. ... They have some experienced players. I’m confident in our guys that they will be ready to play.”
Speaking of experience, the hosting Aggies have a little themselves. Granted, some of the probable starters have not taken the court in for an official game for USU, but they have played a lot of Division I basketball. Odom said he will stick with the same starting five as he used in the exhibition game.
Those starters were seniors Justin Bean, Brock Miller, Brandon Horvath and RJ Eytle-Rock, along with junior Rylan Jones. Bean and Miller have been starters at USU for several seasons, while Horvath and Eytle-Rock were starters at UMBC. Jones started at the University of Utah.
Horvath, Bean and Miller are nearing 1,000 points in their respective college careers. Bean is the only returning player in the Mountain West Conference to average at least 11 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.0 steals per game from a season ago.
There is also good news concerning center Trevin Dorius. The USU junior has missed a good portion of practice this fall, but will see some minutes Tuesday night. He had some big outings a year ago when Neemias Queta got in foul trouble or was banged up.
“Trevin has the ability to guard the rim,” Odom said. “Now, we can’t expect him to be like the Defensive Player of the Year (Queta). He is working his way back from being out two months. He was playing lights out over the summer.”
Sophomore center Szymon Zapala continues to get high praise from the USU head coach. Zapala didn’t see many minutes against Montana Western, but the NAIA school didn’t have much height and looked to launch a lot of 3-pointers.