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Utah State hoops off to dream start, but greatest challenge still looms

Utah State forward Taylor Funk gets off a shot in the team's season-opening game against Utah Valley on Nov. 7, 2022.

Utah State forward Taylor Funk gets off a shot in the team's season-opening game against Utah Valley on Nov. 7, 2022. (Joseph F Myers, USU Athletics)

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LOGAN β€” It is safe to say the Utah State basketball hype train has left the station.

The Aggies are 8-0 β€” the program's best start since the 1961-62 season β€” and seem poised for a dream year. Utah State is ranked No. 12 in NET rankings and No. 41 in KenPom ratings, and boasts five wins over top 120 teams in KenPom and three Quad 2 wins.

Utah State, which remains just one of seven undefeated teams, is safely in the field, according to several NCAA Tournament bracketologists.

Transfer forward Taylor Funk, who is averaging 16.3 points and 8.6 assists, has been a revelation to Utah State as another key asset to the roster. Junior Steven Ashworth, who the student body endearingly refers to as "Splashworth," has emerged as arguably the top guard in the state and averages 18.6 points per game. His offensive rating of 149.9 is ranked third nationally, according to KenPom.

So, is it time to light the A blue and ring the victory bells? Should you start perusing through flight options to the different first-round NCAA Tournament cities?

Hold the blue mint ice cream just yet.

There's no doubt it's been a historic start to the season in Year 2 of the Ryan Odom era. The Aggies offense has been a thrill to watch, and different playmakers are emerging every game, but the volatility of the college game can make or break a season in the span of a few weeks β€” just ask Wyoming. And the toughest portion of the Aggies' season still lies ahead.

Before conference play, the Aggies play in the Hawaii Diamond Head Classic, with a chance of facing three different Quad 1 or 2 opponents in the span of four days. Then it's onto the rugged Mountain West conference slate, where six teams are ranked in the Top 100 of KenPom, and two schools, UNLV and New Mexico, are also undefeated.

The Aggies coaching staff tailor-made a nonconference schedule to test the team while still playing a reasonably balanced schedule filled with home games. On paper, the team is acing the test, but the details haven't been perfect.

Utah Tech pushed the Aggies for all 40 minutes in the Spectrum; and San Diego, ranked 232nd in KenPom, pushed the Aggies to overtime. Utah State also struggled to close out games against San Francisco and Oral Roberts, which led to drama-filled finishes.

Keep in mind, this time a year ago, the Aggies were in the NCAA Tournament conversation and boasted wins over Richmond and Oklahoma. Then the Mountain West slate proved to be too much to handle and the team went 8-10 in conference play to finish seventh in the league.

This year's squad has dominated some mid-tier WCC foes, but can it handle the elite defenses of San Diego State and Boise State, or the talent of UNLV? There's reason to believe they can, and it starts with depth.

Last year's team suffered health-wise with periodic absences from RJ Etyle-Rock, Brock Miller and Rylan Jones, which stalled the offensive flow and impacted games.

Etyle-Rock has hardly cracked the rotation this season since junior Max Shulga took the starting role and is averaging double digits each night. Jones, the starting points guard, is a valuable piece that's missed nearly three straight games with a concussion, and the Aggies are still averaging 82 points per game in his absence.

Sophomore Zee Hamoda's potential still feels untapped, yet he's averaging 6.1 points per game and is an issue defensively with his long wingspan. Senior Sean Bairstow averages 8.9 points per game and is as effective as any guard attacking the hoop.

On the interior, Cal Baptist transfer Dan Akin is shooting 71.4% from the field and averaging 13.8 points per game, and senior center Trevin Dorius is proving to be a reliable rim protector.

The Aggies offense is better statistically than last year in every facet except for offensive rebounding. The Aggies have been elite beyond the arc but have shown they don't live and die out there, either, such as when the Aggies scored 82 points against San Francisco despite shooting 26.3% from 3-point range

They've shown they can make a comeback against good teams, such as when they were down 13 against Loyola Marymount and came away with a win.

Excitement is warranted because the Aggies are good, but so are many teams in the Mountain West Conference. And if you can't win in January and February, what you do in November and December won't matter.

So, go ahead and join the hype train, but be sure to buckle up.


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