It’s a battle of unbeatens.
Sure, the college basketball season is just a week old. But the Aggies and Broncos have certainly got off to a solid start. Both men’s basketball programs are 2-0 with a pair of double-digit victories.
Utah State and Santa Clara of the West Coast Conference are set to collide Monday night in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m.
“We are excited to be playing in the Spectrum again,” Aggie head coach Ryan Odom said Sunday after practice. “A week ago we got off to a good start against a good UVU team and then had a nice, hard-fought, physical game against Bradley. I thought the guys played well on defense and were fortunate to make some shots.”
This will be the 10th meeting between these schools, with eight of the previous nine games being decided by single digits. The last time the Aggies and Broncos met was in 2014 at the Spectrum with USU prevailing, 60-54.
While USU has faced some good competition to begin the 2022-23 campaign, Santa Clara may be the best so far. The Broncos are scoring well, hitting the boards and have size.
“Santa Clara is a good team and is off to a good start as well,” Odom said. “They have added some really good pieces and have guys back from a team that played well. They are playing with major tempo. … They are a complete team with shooting, inside play, ball handling. It’s going to be a fun game.”
Santa Clara went 21-12 last year, losing in the first round of the NIT to Washington State, 63-50. In the WCC Tournament, the Broncos reached the semifinals, falling to Saint Mary’s, 75-72. Santa Clara had notable wins last season against Stanford, TCU, BYU and Saint Mary’s.
Bronco head coach Herb Sendek is no stranger to Odom.
“I’ve known him (Sendek) forever,” Odom said. “... This is a good game for both teams.”
Bronco guard Brandin Podziemski will certainly have the attention of the Aggies. The 6-foot-5 sophomore transfer from Illinois is averaging 32.0 points a game, while also leading the team in rebounding with 10.0 a contest. Podziemski is also dishing out 2.5 assists and coming up with 3.5 steals a game.
“The transfer from Illinois is off to a blazing hot start,” Odom said. “... He can shoot, is very good with his fakes and attacking you when he gets you off balance. He is good in transition.”
In a 78-62 win over Georgia Southern last Thursday, Podziemski scored 34 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, dished out three assists and came up with two steals. In a 84-72 win against Eastern Washington in the Broncos season opener, Podziemski had 30 points, nine rebounds and five steals.
“They move him around in their offense,” Odom said of Podziemski. “They screen for him, and he just understands how to get free. We are going to have to attach and do a good job of not allowing him easy looks. We got to make sure we mark him.”
Guard Max Shulga and forward Zee Hamoda will be the main Aggies to draw the assignment of containing Podziemski, but the entire team must be aware of the guard. While Podziemski will draw attention, the Broncos have other weapons.
Point guard Carlos Stewart is averaging 17.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals a game. Guard Carlos Marshall, Jr., is coming off the bench to average 10.0 points a game.
“They play a fast style and it starts with their point guard Stewart, who is very, very fast,” Odom said. “He is as fast as you will see in college basketball. We are going to have to get back and get our defense set. We can not afford to give up transition baskets.”
While the Aggies will try and slow the Broncos down, the hosts will also be trying to get out and pick up transition buckets.
“I think our guys are good at getting out and running,” Odom said. “We have some improvement to make in that area and are certainly working on it. We need to play our game and get our shots.”
Before each of the first two games last week the Aggie head coach stressed rebounding. His team listened and have been doing just that. Now they face another team that has been having success in that department.
The Broncos are averaging 47 rebounds a game and have a rebound margin of plus 12.5. The Aggies are averaging 46.5 boards an outing with a rebound margin of plus 14.0.
“They are a very good rebounding team,” Odom said. “Coach Sendek has always had good rebounding teams. They defend you well and do a good job of staying in between you and the basket. They have good size. We are going to have to move them around.”
Santa Clara also gets to the free throw line. The Broncos are averaging 26 attempts from the stripe, making 20. Bradley went to the foul line 22 times last Friday.
“They (Braves) got downhill on us and we made some poor decisions, fouling them,” Odom said, “We need to make a stand at the rim a little better without fouling. These guys (Broncos) are good, so we need to make sure we are not hand checking on the perimeter.”
Over the first two games, the Aggies have had different guys carry the scoring load. In fact, four USU players are averaging double digits. Steven Ashworth leads the way with 18.5 ppg, after recording a career-high 28 last Friday off the bench. Taylor Funk (15.5), Sean Bairstow (11.5) and Shulga (10.5) join Ashworth in double-figure scoring. Zee Hamoda (9.0) and Daniel Akin (8.0) are close behind.
“Our bench has been good, and our starters have been good too,” Odom said. “Rylan (Jones) was the player of the game in game one, not from a scoring perspective, but doing what Rylan does in getting guys shots and his defense was excellent. He controlled the game in a lot of ways.
“Then Steven is going to be Steven whether he is coming off the bench or starting. He is very confident. Dan (Akin) was great the other day. Zee is really coming into his own right now. Sean and Taylor have done a good job as well, and Max as well. We have some depth and versatility. We are excited about how it is shaping up.”
Funk and Akin had recorded double-doubles in different games. Funk is grabbing a team-best 11.0 boards an outing, with Akin snagging 8.0. Funk leads the Mountain West Conference in rebounding and is 28th nationally. Ashwork is tops in assists with 5.5, while Jones averages 4.5.