Ryan Odom awoke at 5 one morning last week when his cellphone started buzzing from text message after text message.
His Utah State Aggies had beaten New Mexico the night before in the conference tournament and he’d need to start game planning for Boise State. But Odom found himself transfixed by his phone: coaches and players from his former team, the UMBC Retrievers, were sharing memories and memes about their own conference tournament run in 2018.
“I literally was in tears, not from an emotional standpoint, just laughing,” Odom said. “It was so fun because it reminded me of why we do this, right, and why we coach. It’s to have those interactions, to have those special memories.”
Thursday will mark five years since Odom notched his biggest victory, coaching the No. 16-seed Retrievers to a historic win over No. 1 Virginia. Thursday will also mark Odom’s first time leading Utah State into March Madness.
“Each team that we’re fortunate enough to coach has one life to live,” Odom said Wednesday as he prepared his team for an opening-round game in Sacramento. “That particular [UMBC] team lived a great life. The joy that that team experienced was unlike any other. Certainly, the memories that we’ll all take from that particular season will last a lifetime.”
And now Odom would like to make a new memory.
USU hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since beating Ohio State in the first round in 2001 — racking up nine losses in the two decades since. Now the lower seed of a 7-10 matchup, Utah State is a 1.5-point favorite over Missouri in Thursday’s opening round. Tipoff is scheduled for 11:40 a.m. MT and will be televised on TNT.
“These guys are obviously a really good team,” said Aggie captain Rylan Jones, who will miss the game due to injury. “We’ve played a lot of really good teams throughout this season. We’re prepared for this team, Missouri, for our preparation from the summer, from our pre-season games, then the brutal Mountain West Conference play where it’s a battle every night. These guys are prepared for it. We’re going to give it everything we’ve got.”
Missouri (24-9) got to the tournament led by guard Kobe Brown, who averages 15.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. The Tigers’ opponents’ 17.21 turnovers per game were the eighth most in the NCAA this season.
“A team I would compare them to are teams in our conference like New Mexico and UNLV, who turn teams over at a high rate, guards that are very dynamic on the defensive end,” USU guard Steven Ashworth said. “I think those two teams have helped us prepare for a moment like this. Hopefully tomorrow we’ll be able to go out and show that preparedness.”
Ashworth is averaging 16.3 points and 4.5 assists for the Aggies.
Taylor Funk, who transferred to USU from St. Joseph’s, is averaging 13.3 points per game.
And USU is also getting key contributions from two UMBC transfers.
“What also makes me smile is a guy like RJ Eytle-Rock, who has stepped in for [Jones],” Odom said. “RJ came with us from UMBC. We didn’t make it to the dance. We were close. One of the reasons that he came out here with us is because he wanted a good shot at it. To see him smile the other day when our name was called, that’s everything for me.
“To have Dan Akin here, as well, who was with us at UMBC, the last remaining player that played in that Virginia game, jumped center that night,” Odom continued. “For him to be able to experience this with us again is going to be really rewarding.”
And if the Aggies can make a run in March, Odom might one day find himself laughing himself to tears remembering this team, too.
“There’s a lot of emotion that happens as you’re preparing and as the ball gets ready to be tipped in the NCAA Tournament. That’s what it’s all about,” the coach said. “That’s why we do this, is for these moments, to be able to play.