It was a good first day.
But then, it better be or there would be some real trouble for the Aggie men’s basketball program.
Eighteen players were on the court at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum Thursday afternoon as first-year head coach Ryan Odom and his staff officially began preparation for the 2021-22 basketball season. The team went through a three-hour practice full of energy and teaching.
“It was fun to be out here with the guys,” Odom said. “We’ve been together since April, but going two days a week is a little different than taking a couple of days off during a week. We’re excited to get out here and get going, and I was really pleased with the first day.”
There is plenty of learning going on as the entire staff is new, as well as 10 athletes. There are eight players back.
“I thought it was a good day today,” Guard Brock Miller said. “I’m really excited about this year and this group of guys we have. We competed really hard. We’ve got a lot of new faces and a new staff and it is going to be an interesting year for us. We have a foundation from limited time in the summer, so that was good. We really competed hard today.”
The Aggie senior is one of the veterans on the team. He and senior forward Justin Bean are returning starters from a year ago. Bean is the top returning scorer (11.4 points per game) and rebounder (7.7) from last season.
“Everyone came in with energy today,” Odom said. “We have some veteran guys that are used to these first days. ... They have meshed really well. We have a lot of different lineups we can put out there.”
Also back are guards Steven Ashworth, Sean Bairstow and Max Shulga. Centers Trevin Dorius and Szymon Zapala return as does forward Matthew Wickizer. Dorius is currently in a walking boot, but should return soon. Wickizer is also returning from an injury suffered late last spring.
“Trevin will be fine; we are just resting him right now,” Odom said. “He will be back. He had a really good summer. Our health is good.”
The 10 newcomers include a player Aggie fans are familiar with in guard Rylan Jones. The Utah transfer appeared in 45 games with the Utes over the last two years. Jones began his high school career at Logan High before finishing up at Olympus High School in Holladay when his father, Chris Jones, left USU to be an assistant at Utah.
Two other newcomers are familiar with Odom and his staff in guard RJ Eytle-Rock and forward Brandon Horvath. They played at UMBC under Odom. Eytle-Rock and Horvath were the top two scorers for the Retrievers, averaging 14.3 and 13.1 points per game, respectively.
“It’s exciting, this is my last first day of practice for my college career,” Horvath said. “I thought it was a good, productive day. Everyone is getting used to the new coaches. I’m used to it, but it gave us a great chance to have the new guys get used to the new staff.
“... I want to help everyone get up to speed with the new coaches because I’m used to it. I really think we are coming together. We have been around each other since the summer. ... I thought everybody brought a lot of energy today. It was a good, productive practice.”
With 18 athletes, it will be a juggling act to get players time in different roles at practices. Thirteen of the players are on scholarship, which is what the NCAA allows.
“With the walk ons, we do have 18, which is new for me,” Odom said. “We’ve got a good group of guys that get along well together.”
Other newcomers included guards Landon Brenchley, Conner Gillis and Connor Odom and forwards Cade Potter, Travis Wagstaff, Norbert Thelissen and Zee Hamoda.
“I think we are coming together really well,” Miller said. “I think our chemistry is really building, and we are growing together as a team. Coach has done a good job bringing in these guys and the guys that are returning know what it’s all about to play here at Utah State. I think we are going to have a special season.”
Miller has dealt with some health issues, mainly his back. He was cleared to return to five-on-five drills two months ago.
“I’ve had a lot of help with trainers and talking with coach,” Miller said. “My back has been feeling really well. I would say I’m at 100 percent right now.”
There was a stretch during the first practice Thursday where the 3-point sharp shooter couldn’t miss.
“Today was good,” Miller said. “I’ve worked really hard on my shot, even when I had to sit out with my back I was able to get shots up. I’ve worked really hard this offseason expanding my game and developing my shot.”
Horvath is from Maryland and is enjoying his time out west.
“It is much different than where I’m from,” Horvath said. “I’m getting used to it and really like it. I’m settling in and excited that basketball season is just around the corner.”
Expectations may be down some with a new coaching staff and losing three starters — one to the NBA and two as transfers to the University of Utah. However, Miller and Horvath are not expecting a drop off at all from a team that has reached the conference tournament championship game three times and qualified for the NCAA Tournament three straight years.
“Utah State has had a tradition of excellence, and we are not going to have anything less than that,” Miller said. “We want to win a conference championship and not only make March Madness but we want to at least win a game. What I really like about coach Odom said when he first came in was, ‘in order to be in the tournament for March Madness, you got to win the first game.’ Our mentality is championships, nothing less than that. We are all on board with that. I believe in this team.”
“Fans should expect the same as the last few years, championship or bust,” Horvath said. “We’re not dropping off or rebuilding. We are going to keep it going.”
USU will host a Blue/White Scrimmage on Thursday, Oct. 21, and then welcome Montana Western in an exhibition game on Wednesday, Oct. 27. The 2021-22 campaign will officially tip off on Tuesday, Nov. 9, when the Aggies face UC Davis inside the Spectrum in the season opener.
“There is time between now and Nov. 9, and a lot of work to do,” Odom said. “We’ve got to continue to mesh and connect this group. We are certainly not a finished product right now. This is the fun part, putting it together at the beginning.”