A lot of doubt circled the Utah State basketball team in the wake of Craig Smith’s exodus from Logan to Salt Lake City. Under Smith, the Aggies won 25 games in back-to-back seasons and then 20 games in a COVID shortened season a year ago. In each of those three seasons, USU qualified for the NCAA Tournament. Would the Aggies be able to replicate that success under new head coach Ryan Odom?
Through seven games the doubt is being dispelled and the critics are getting a resounding answer. Utah State is a solid 6-1 mid-way through non-conference play with a win over a Power Five team under their belt and a tournament trophy on the shelf.
Here’s how the Aggies have gotten to that 6-1 start and a look at their upcoming matchup with Saint Mary’s.
An opening-night slip-up
The one blight on USU’s resume came in the season opener against UC Davis. Since 1994, the only time the Aggies lost a home opener was last year when hosting BYU. But despite facing a far less capable opponent, Utah State dropped its home opener for the second straight year 72-69.
“We were obviously very shocked,” senior forward Justin Bean said. “As much as the fans I’m sure were shocked, the team was much more surprised at how the outcome went. Felt like we didn’t play at our standards. Not only did we not shoot the ball well, but I just felt we were out-toughed.
The Aggies shot 8-for-30 from 3-point range, just the fifth time in the last decade they’ve attempted at least 30 triples and failed to make 10 of them. Poor shooting luck bled over into free throw shooting as USU made just 17 of 28 shots from the charity stripe. That percentage (.607) is the second-worst since 2010 in a game where USU took at least 28 free throws.
“It’s not like you’re playing against a San Diego State or a Boise State or a really physical team,” Bean said. “That’s what was very alarming to us and definitely kind of humbled us a lot to the point where we had to look ourselves in the mirror after day one.”
Myrtle Beach tournament victory
Utah State had little time to mope over losing to UC Davis as it traveled to South Carolina to play in a four-game tournament, starting just three days after the loss. But this tournament showed a completely different version of the Aggies, one that took to heart the loss to UC Davis. USU cleared away the competition, downing Richmond 85-74, Pennsylvania 87-79 and New Mexico State 85-58, to reach the championship game.
That humble title game would be the crowning achievement for Utah State at Myrtle Beach, and not just because it earned the team a trophy. In that final, the Aggies faced an undefeated Oklahoma squad. Downing a team from a Power Five conference, one ranked high in the KenPom rankings to boot, would prove a major boost to the team and build the NCAA Tournament resume. And thanks to a 24-point, 19-rebound effort from Justin Bean — who grew up just minutes away from the Oklahoma campus — the Aggies did just that, coming out on top 73-70.
Justin Bean, a breakout star
The near 20-20 game from Bean against the Sooners was far from an anomaly for this season. The senior forward is stepping up his game in a big way for 2021. While once just a double-double machine playing second fiddle to the superstar might of Sam Merrill and Neemias Queta, Bean is now becoming a star in his own right. This year he’s averaging 22.6 points and 12.9 rebounds. Bean is one of three players nationally to be averaging 20-plus points and 10-plus rebounds. He also leads the Mountain West in six categories — scoring, total rebounds, offensive rebounds (4.1), defensive rebounds (8.7), field goal percentage (.678) and free throw percentage (.882).
“I never felt like I was being held back in years prior,” Bean said. “I just feel like at that time that was my role, to be a facilitator, a rebounder and score when I could. But knowing that I’m kind of one of the first options on offense, it’s really cool and it’s something that I’ve definitely prepared myself for.”
A huge addition to Bean’s offensive package is his 3-point shot. In his first three seasons, Bean shot just 24.7 percent from beyond the arc, but this season is sinking his triples at a rate of 58.8 percent.
How USU matches up with Saint Mary’s
Saint Mary’s will be the most notable out-of-state opponent to visit the Spectrum since USC came to Logan in 2013. Utah State played the Gaels two years ago in Moraga, falling 81-73. In the losing effort, Bean scored a then-career-high 24 points to go with 10 rebounds.
The Gaels are well into a bounce-back season, having won just 14 games in 2020-21 but are already 7-1 this season. Under 21st-year head coach Randy Bennett, the Gaels rank 23rd in points allowed per game, conceding just 57.6 on average.
“Defensively, they’re tremendous,” Odom said, also noting that Saint Mary’s is one of the top teams in preventing teams from getting assists. Schools facing the Gaels record an assist on just 29.9 percent of made baskets, which is the best rate defensively for any team in the nation. Conversely, Utah State ranks third in the NCAA with 68.6 percent of their field goals having an assist attached.
On offense, Bennett’s squad has four players averaging double figures — Dan Fotu (14.5), Tommy Kuhse (10.9), Matthias Tass (10.6) and Logan Johnson (10.4). Five different players have finished as the leading scorer in one of Saint Mary’s games this year (each of those four double-digit scorers and Alex Ducas) with three separate players eclipsing 20 points at some point.
“It’s not like you can say, ‘We’re going to take this guy out,’ because they do have a well-balanced team,” Odom said.
Oddly enough Fotu, the leading scorer, doesn’t start for the Gaels. He plays just 22 minutes per game but has reached double figures in scoring in all but one game this year with a season-high 22 against Notre Dame. Fotu possesses both an offensive package that includes scoring from the block and beyond the arc. He’s made 8 of 16 threes this season but at 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds he’s capable of backing down smaller wings and guards.
“He’s a load to deal with,” Odom said.
The fuel for the starting five is the guard duo of Kuhse and Johnson. The pair of 6-foot-2 seniors are active on the perimeter and Bennett has the offense run plenty of sets where the guards dump the ball inside, then run cuts and flares to find openings in the defense to exploit. Kuhse is the top 3-point shooter, attempting 2.8 per game and making them at a 54.5 percent clip.
After this matchup with the Gaels, the Aggies will face No. 12 BYU on Wednesday, making for what will likely be the toughest two-game stretch of Utah State’s entire season.