Utah State has put itself in the NCAA Tournament picture after a big week

Odom promised NCAA Tournament wins. After a longer-than-expected wait, his team is finally positioned to have a shot.

(Eli Lucero | The Herald Journal via AP) Utah State guard Steven Ashworth celebrates with fans after defeating New Mexico in an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023, in Logan, Utah.

Logan • Once the handshakes were over, and each player had made their way up the tunnel into the locker room, Ryan Odom began his quest for a microphone in earnest.

The Utah State basketball coach went over to the scorer’s table, grabbing the first mic he saw. He spoke into it, but it didn’t work. Then he asked somebody for a different mic, tried again. No dice. Finally, as fans shifted in their seats, he went over to the public address announcer and picked up a headset.

“Hey,” Odom shouted in the aftermath of a convincing 11-point win over New Mexico that put the Aggies firmly in the NCAA Tournament picture. “We want to thank each and every Aggie in here. … That is what it is all about.”

The crowd roared in approval. They could wait for this message, mainly because they had been waiting for this moment for two years — ever since the head coach arrived on campus promising visions of USU being a perennial March darling.

It didn’t come easily. Odom’s first year was a lackluster one that ended in a first-round NIT exit. This second year flirted with delivering on a promise, but every time Odom’s squad had a chance to solidify Its March futures, the team fell flat.

But finally as the calendar turned to February — a full 22 months into his tenure — Utah State looked the part. In front of a packed crowd at the Spectrum, in front of a national television audience, the Aggies beat a fellow contender in the Mountain West with four players in double-figures. They followed it up with a nine-point win on the road at Colorado State.

Now, Utah State will spend the month of February entrenched in the NCAA Tournament discussion — and a happy fanbase can soak it all in.

“This was a big one,” Odom exhaled in a backroom after the win over New Mexico. He tacitly acknowledged his team is now top 35 in the NET and top 40 in KenPom.

“Every game is big in conference, but you can only play the game that night,” he continued, trying to stay measured.

You could forgive Odom for getting a little ahead of himself. This week gave his vision some life, and this job was probably harder than even he could’ve imagined.

At USU there is a tricky balance between history and expectations. It is a program with 22 NCAA Tournament appearances, and 11 bids since 2000.

Former coach Craig Smith came into Logan and quickly earned two NCAA Tournament appearances. There would have been a third if not for the COVID-19 pandemic. And when Odom took over for Smith in 2022, he figured he would just keep it going.

“It is not a rebuild,” then athletics-director John Hartwell said when Odom was introduced.

Odom followed that up by saying, “We are going to be a top 25 team year in and year out. We want to advance in the NCAA Tournament. We have the support here to be able to do that. It is on us to get it done.”

But when Smith left for Utah, a lot of that development schedule was derailed. Smith took underclassmen Marco Anthony and Rollie Worster with him. Alphonso Anderson also transferred away. Neemias Queta, the best player on the 2021 team, graduated and made his way onto an NBA roster.

So that first year, Odom was basically left with Justin Bean and a bunch of underclassmen who had to play ahead of schedule. Odom tried his hand at the portal, bringing Brandon Horvath with him from UMBC and Rylan Jones from Utah, but it still led to an 18-16 season.

This year, though, Utah State appears to be back on schedule. Three of the top five players are homegrown talents. Steven Ashworth, Sean Bairstow and Max Shulga have all grown up in the program. They are complemented by two transfers — Dan Akin from UMBC and Taylor Funk from Saint Joseph’s — who weren’t the most highly rated but have found a fit in Logan.

And now Utah State is 19-5 and inching toward the top of the Mountain West, which is expected to be a four-bid league at the moment.

“It means a lot, it shows that we belong like we have believed all season that we do,” Bairstow said after the win over New Mexico, where he had 20 points in 37 minutes.

As Odom was wrapping up his speech to the crowd on Wednesday night, he started to tell the fans about a game on March 4 against Boise State.

He understood spring break was coming up, but implored the students to keep showing up. The crowd cheered again. A meaningful game in March? This is what they have been waiting on.