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Ryan Odom’s plan is falling apart.
It’s August 2000 and Odom is in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with his then-girlfriend, Lucia. They’re about to take the famed Grand Teton National Park gondola up the mountains. They’ll leave the valley boyfriend and girlfriend; they’ll return engaged. She has no clue.
Then a storm rolls in, and they come up one cabin short when the ride shuts down. Odom is irritated, but what can he do? He can’t control what he can’t control — the weather especially. It’s a lesson that will help throughout his coaching career.
The couple’s trip continues. As they head toward their next destination, Odom pulls over — “some spot along the way” while driving in Utah as he tells it — and proposes. She says yes.
More than 20 years later, Odom still can’t find the location on a map. But he’s back in the Beehive State, now in his second year as the coach at Utah State. He’s focused on putting the Aggies on the map, just like he did five years ago with the Retrievers of Maryland-Baltimore County.
Steven Ashworth didn’t know the name Ryan Odom, but when he heard those magical four letters — UMBC — he was ecstatic. The Aggies point guard had a clear recollection of the Retrievers’ monumental upset of Virginia in 2018, the first time in NCAA Tournament history a No. 16 seed beat a No. 1 seed, and UMBC’s fast pace and 3-point shooting that fit his style well.
“When we first got introduced, a lot of those conversations were about that and about how I played in a way that would allow for a lot of freedom within his strategies and offense and game plans,” Ashworth recalled.
Odom’s coaching career spans more than a quarter-century, but he has been in the game his whole life. The son of former East Carolina, Wake Forest and South Carolina coach Dave Odom, Ryan played at Division III Hampden-Sydney College from 1992-96 and into coaching immediately as an administrative assistant on Seth Greenberg’s staff at South Florida. Then came stops at Furman, UNC Asheville, American, Virginia Tech and Charlotte before his first full-time head-coaching opportunity at Lenoir-Rhyne, a Division II program in Hickory, North Carolina, in 2015.
One year removed from finishing 8-18 and averaging a paltry 65.3 points, the Bears finished 21-10 while averaging 90.1 points in Odom’s debut season, making the regional final of the Division II NCAA Tournament. They led Division II in 3-pointers per game.
His first year with Lenoir-Rhyne was also his last. The young coach with the explosive offense was off to another program in need of a new direction: UMBC.
The rebuild at UMBC was daunting. The Retrievers had made one NCAA Tournament — in 2007-08 — and had suffered eight straight losing seasons immediately afterward, seven straight with single-digit wins. Inheriting a team that went 7-25 in 2015-16, Odom produced a 21-13 turnaround his first year in Baltimore and the historic March Madness win his second year.
That was as far as the Retrievers got under Odom. He had received plenty of interest since the win over Virginia, but after an America East regular-season title in 2020-21, he finally found the job that suited him at Utah State.
The challenge in Logan, Utah, was very different from his first two full-time head-coaching gigs. The Aggies made the NCAA Tournament in 2021 under Craig Smith, who took the Utah job. Unlike at Lenoir-Rhyne and UMBC, Odom was looking to build upon success, rather than overhaul a struggling program.
“He talked a lot about the culture and the atmosphere and the environment that Utah State had and that he wanted to continue to build on,” Ashworth said.
Add in that he was leaving the East Coast for the first time, and an outsider would think there was lots of pressure. Odom saw it differently.
“There’s 300 and however many jobs in the country, and they all have pressure,” Odom said. “Is it exactly equal at each one? I have no idea. Probably not, right? But pressure is something that you can put on yourself, too. So we try not to do that. I try not to do that. Coming here, it was a place that had experienced tremendous, tremendous success over the course of its basketball history.
“So that’s really what this program is all about. It’s about all the individuals that have paved the way for future teams. And that’s all we’re trying to do right now, too: do our best while we have this moment together and not put any unneeded pressure on ourselves but at the same time pave new roads for future teams and enjoy each moment that we have together.”
Bringing that group together was a puzzle of sorts. The COVID-19 year threw a wrench into players’ eligibility, and the new transfer rule allowed players to change schools without sitting out a year. That left rosters around the country in disarray, especially for first-year coaches who had teams filled with players recruited by previous regimes. Two Utah State players joined Smith at Utah and star center Neemias Queta went to the NBA and was picked 39th overall with the Kings.
Odom maintained a message of trust and empowerment. In his first Zoom meeting with the team, his central message was, “You didn’t choose me. I chose you. Now it’s my job to earn [your] trust. It’s my job to be there for [you].”
Credit his players for listening — and believing. Odom retained a strong core led by Ashworth, Brock Miller and all-conference forward Justin Bean while also bringing in UMBC transfers Brandon Horvath and RJ Eytle-Rock and Utah transfer Rylan Jones. It required patience and trust from both sides.
“I did think about transferring — I was in the transfer portal for a couple of days, even,” now-junior Max Shulga said. “My conversation with Coach O was just about the way he plays, the way his teams play, stuff like that. So I really liked that. A brand-new coaching staff coming in was pretty much like me transferring.”
Shulga, a Ukraine native who attended high school in Spain, was initially spotted by Eric Peterson — a former Smith assistant — while playing for Ukraine at the U18 FIBA European Championships. Shulga committed without ever visiting campus, choosing the Aggies over a handful of low-major offers.
He’s one of six Aggies from outside the United States. Another, Australia native Sean Bairstow, connected with the Aggies’ previous staff during a tour of the United States with Australian AAU team AUSA Hoops, but he knew of Utah State well before that. His older brother Cam starred at Mountain West rival New Mexico, earning All-America honorable mention his senior year before being drafted by the Bulls. Like Shulga, Sean Bairstow weighed transferring. Like Shulga, he stayed despite having no prior connection to Odom.
“I was just looking for a fresh start, and the fresh start came to me,” Bairstow, now a senior, said. “He just told me, ‘I think you’re gonna have a breakout year,’ and that was really all I needed to hear after that. I kind of knew that he had that belief in me that I could do the things that I knew I could do.”
That breakout had to wait. After a strong offseason, Bairstow broke his wrist in the annual intrasquad Blue-White Scrimmage and also suffered a lacerated kidney. He missed several weeks and never got back on track. Miller’s back issues cost him essentially the entire Mountain West slate.
Utah State still finished 18-16 with an NIT appearance. Odom’s impact was clear: The Aggies led the country in assist rate. More than 40% of their shots were from 3-point range, drastically up from the 32.6% in Smith’s final season. But the pieces were in place, even if no one could have projected this sort of improvement.
A coach’s second year on the job is often a better indicator than his first. He has more control of the roster and has had longer to implement his style. Over the offseason, Horvath and Bean moved on, and Odom brought in two key transfers that have played major roles.
Odom had recruited Taylor Funk while at UMBC, but the talented forward was focused on bigger conferences, ultimately choosing Atlantic 10 program Saint Joseph’s. After five years with the Hawks, he was looking for more success — both team and individual — especially after missing the final two games of his redshirt senior season with a thumb injury.
“I committed on my visit and then never once regretted my decision,” Funk said. “I think [Odom] knew me more than I knew him, which was impressive. So when it came back to him recruiting me again, he knew exactly what he was getting.”
The returns have likely been even better than Odom expected. Funk’s 13.4 points per game are second on the team. He’s shooting 37.5% from 3-point range — the best mark since his freshman campaign — and connecting on nearly 90% of his free throws. At 6-foot-9 with the ability to shoot and drive, he’s a matchup nightmare for opposing bigs.
“Taylor’s awesome,” Odom said. “Taylor just fits us. He fits the way that we do things, the way that we play, the type of program that we aspire to be. He is just a great person, he’s got great parents and a great family. He’s found a home here that will be his second home forever in such a short time. … It’s been a really positive experience for both sides.”
Also transferring in was Dan Akin, a former teammate of Eytle-Rock’s not only at UMBC but also at Barking Abbey in London, England. Akin, who scored UMBC’s first basket in the Virginia upset, is in his sixth year of college after four seasons at UMBC and one at Cal Baptist. Both Eytle-Rock and Akin have become key players for the Aggies.
“RJ had a great career at UMBC,” Odom said. “He was the classic guy who you want to coach that starts out a little bit slow and is not really in the mix and then just keeps working and then all of the sudden enters the mix, has success once he enters, and then becomes to probably the best and most productive player we had in his last year. It’s really cool to see a guy do that. For him, it was about ‘What’s next? Let’s go prove ourselves at another level, a little bit higher level.'”
The message was similar for Akin, who is averaging a career-high 12.1 points despite mostly coming off the bench.
“He needed that challenge prior to moving on and going to pursue a professional career,” Odom said. “I’ve been really proud of what he’s been able to do.”
A few transfers does not make a full team, though. The core Odom kept together has led the way. The Bairstow breakout Odom foresaw in their first meeting has finally happened. He’s shooting 43.6% from 3-point range, a remarkable jump from the 12.5% from his injury-disrupted 2021-22 season.
“It’s a confidence thing for sure, but I also became a much better shooter over the summer,” Bairstow said. “I could definitely shoot last year. I was far from a 12% shooter, but that’s what the numbers will show you.
“In the summer, it’s easy to have confidence. When you’re just playing pick-up, none of the shots you’re making or missing matter. But it was focusing a lot on the mental side, knowing that when I was shooting or working out, I was putting myself in game situations, imagining them sagging off me and having to step up and knock it down.”
This is where Funk’s presence doesn’t show up in his own stats but has had a major impact. He and Funk — of similar height and build — worked out together throughout the summer, with Bairstow trying to emulate Funk while building a bond with his new teammate as well.
“He worked his tail off in the summer,” Odom said. “The key is taking the right shots, and Sean is committed to taking the right threes for our team, and he’s been able to knock them down for the majority of the season. I’m really proud that he’s increased his level of confidence in his shooting.”
The breakout has also come for Shulga, and it’s come at the best time. On Valentine’s Day, Shulga poured in a career-high 29 points in a win over Air Force to halt a two-game losing streak. He then posted 13 points and 10 rebounds in a 21-point comeback win over Nevada, a game crucial for the Aggies’ NCAA Tournament hopes. He earned Mountain West Player of the Week honors.
“I never play like, ‘Oh, I’m about to have a big game,’ or like I’m expecting to have a big game next game,” Shulga said after the Air Force win. “I just like to kind of stay in the moment and just make the right reads, make the right plays throughout the game, and then the work shows on the court. Just making the right reads and making the right plays will take us a long way.”
No one has to make more reads than Ashworth, the Aggies’ floor general. So this summer, he crunched tape of fellow undersized guards with deep range — Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Trae Young in particular — to see what he could add to his repertoire.
“I remember last season, after the season was over, really looking deep into what kind of metrics and numbers could I really improve on, whether it’s small margins that will make a big difference in the end, or maybe things that I need a lot of work on, and one of those things was honestly my ball handling,” Ashworth said. “The hard part for me was I really struggled at times getting exactly to the spot that I wanted to, whether it was setting up my defender so I could come off the screen easier or even just navigating my way once coming off of the ball screen.”
The results, again, have been outstanding. Ashworth is up from 8.7 points per game to 15.8. He’s shooting 46.4% this year compared to 40.4% last year. Ashworth’s 45.7% mark from deep is fourth in Division I this season. Furthermore, his assist rate is way up and his turnover rate is way down. The Aggies, in turn, lead Division I in 3-point percentage (40.5%) and rank 14th in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com.
“It allowed me to have a lot more confidence coming into the season,” Ashworth said. “We’ve definitely seen the benefits of that with my efficiency, increasing my opportunities to score and facilitate out of the pick-and-roll. As somewhat of an undersized guard that’s really quick and fast, I think that’s one of the things that will help me develop into the player I want to be.”
There are some common threads you hear from Odom and his players. Confidence. Proud. Taking advantage of the moment. Odom instills those in his players, and it’s helpful to have an experienced bunch listening. The Aggies have 11 players listed as upperclassmen or graduate students. They rank 28th in Kenpom’s “experience” metric. And that doesn’t tell the full story, either. Ashworth is “only” a junior but is already 22 after taking a mission trip following high school — one of five Aggies to do so. Ashworth says that experience has helped the team stay on course throughout the season. After two four-game losing streaks last year, the Aggies haven’t lost more than two straight this year, and they’ve only done that once.
“It’s just the way that we’re able to learn from things that happen in games or things that happen in practice, and just the maturity level,” Funk said a day after a narrow loss to Mountain West leader San Diego State. “No one came in here making any excuses or hanging their heads or having low energy. That’s kind of hard to find with a younger team. I would say we value the opportunities we have and don’t let things get to us.”
There’s no better time for the Aggies to value their opportunities than now. One of the “Next Four Out” in CBS Sports Bracketology Expert Jerry Palm’s field of 68, they’re a strong 34th in the NET Ranking but 0-4 in Quad 1 games. Utah State likely will get one more regular-season chance at a Quad 1 victory against Boise State in the finale. Then will come the Mountain West Tournament, which will feature at least five teams with at-large bid cases. There’s work to do for an NCAA Tournament berth, but given the Aggies’ experience, explosive offense and coach, no one will want to see them — if they can get there. For now, they’re not overlooking anyone.
“One of the mottos we try to live by is ‘Every game’s a big game because the Aggies are playing,'” Ashworth said.
There are big games on the horizon, including Tuesday’s game at Wyoming on CBS Sports Network. Take it from their coach and their veteran leaders: The Aggies will be ready for them.