Summer Q&A: Basketball Lineups, Football Musings And More
15 min read

Summer Q&A: Basketball Lineups, Football Musings And More

It took its sweet time, but the offseason has finally arrived in Logan. Let's celebrate by emptying out the mailbag for this free Q&A:
Summer Q&A: Basketball Lineups, Football Musings And More

It seems that the true offseason for college athletics is arriving later and later with each passing year. Football has two transfer portal window cycles – one that stretches through December into January, and another near the end of spring practice that offers players another opportunity to explore their options. Basketball only has one window, but it opens during the NCAA tournament and dominates the news cycle for weeks after the season closes, with some high-profile recruitments extending even into June (hello, Coleman Hawkins) as players await their NBA draft grades before deciding to re-enter the recruiting pool.

Turnover certainly hasn't helped matters for Utah State's delayed offseasons in recent years, be it from portal attrition and the ensuing recruitments of replacements for those departed players or, in the case of basketball (both men's and women's), from newly hired coaches needing a little extra time to establish themselves.

But, as it stands in mid-June, quiet finally seems to have settled on Logan. Football's flurry of transfers (both in and out) has slowed significantly as Blake Anderson and Co. finish up their roster; men's basketball has only one scholarship remaining and seems likely to hold onto it after signing up Gonzaga transfer Pavle Stošić; and women's basketball has been just about set for almost a month now, filling out 14 of its 15 available scholarship spots in the weeks after Wes Brooks' arrival as Kayla Ard's replacement.

With this lull in breaking news or major changes, it's a good time to assess the landscape – and what better way to do that than by opening up the mailbag?

When it comes to the starting lineup, it's probably easiest to begin with the obvious player picks, rather than focusing on positional fit. Ian Martinez will be a Mountain West POY candidate, and a Mountain West POY candidate isn't coming off the bench. Neither is Mason Falslev.

His biggest plays in 2023-24 earned him a reputation as a spark plug, but to label him as such would undershoot his full value. By the end of the campaign, he was one of the most well-rounded off-ball guards in the league – checking in at No. 6 among qualifying (those who played at least 60 percent of their available minutes) MWC shooting guards in BartTorvik's PRPG!, which is a helpful shorthand for measuring a player's overall impact. Falslev's PPRG! was 2.8, 0.1 points behind Martinez. In conference play specifically, that number jumped to 3.3, fourth among the same group of guards. Only Jarod Lucas, Rytis Petraitis and Brendan Wenzel were better. You don't take a young player that good off the floor unless you absolutely have to.

This is where things get a little trickier. I feel good about slotting Isaac Johnson in alongside his returning teammates. He needed a little time to find himself within Danny Sprinkle's system, but he stepped up when called upon during conference play and showed off his talent with a handful of terrific performances in some of Utah State's biggest games – from January through the end of the season, he averaged 7.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and only 2.8 fouls in 17.9 minutes per game against KenPom top 100 opponents (14 games), shooting 44.4 percent from the field. Remove the loss to Purdue, which can be safely written off as non-instructive for Utah State's sake, and those averages jump to 7.7 PPG, 3.8 RPG and 2.7 FPG in 18.7 MPG, with a 46.2 percent hit rate on field goal tries.

There's more work to be done, but that's a very nice starting point for Jerrod Calhoun and Utah State's new staff. With a little more confidence offensively and another offseason of defensive work, Johnson has breakout star potential in a system that should suit his game a bit better than Sprinkle's did. He's also one of only two upperclassmen forwards on the roster, and he has a season of MWC experience behind him. I'd have a hard time imagining a player with that resume coming off the bench.

The last two spots depend partially on offseason battles and partially on Utah State's preferred style. If the Aggies want to run with something approximating a four-guard lineup to start games with some serious firepower, they can do that by bumping Johnson down to the center spot and filling in the No. 4 role with one of Dexter Akanno or Tucker Anderson. If they'd prefer a true interior presence to free Johnson up as more of a stretch forward, Aubin Gateretse will get the nod at center. Right now, I would guess that's the more common approach for USU, but there's no need to adhere to a one-lineup-fits-all strategy. Against small-ball opponents, the four-guard starting five makes a lot more sense, and you'll probably see plenty of it.

Finally, at point guard, it feels like a coin flip between Deyton Albury and Drake Allen. Based purely on their respective game tape, I'd pick Albury, with Braden Housley as the clear No. 3 learning behind the two veterans.

Ultimately, I'm not really sure it matters all that much. When it comes to the full rotation, both Albury and Allen will log a ton of minutes as Utah State's primary ball-handler. Falslev and Martinez will draw the bulk of the off-guard backcourt minutes, supported primarily by Akanno (who can play in either spot) and Anderson (who is built to be a very long small forward) with extra help coming as needed from those point guards.

I'll say Johnson starts at power forward and picks up help off the bench from Anderson against small-ball lineups and Karson Templin when USU needs a bit more heft. Gateretse is the only true center on this roster, but Johnson can obviously pitch in there, and I'd bet that one of Isaac Davis or Stošić will be ready to fill a spot contributor role to bulk up that room. Stošić is older so I'll give him the nod for now, though I'm very high on Davis and could easily see him garnering a consistent rotational role by the time February and March roll around.

For the sake of organization, I'll split these answers up by question.

  • Which MBB player do you think is the X-factor next year?

My answer depends on the definition of X-factor, so I'll give one for both options. If we're talking about the top-end star power needed to compete with the best teams in the MWC, it's either Falslev or, more likely, Martinez. Both players will be centerpieces of the offense without Great Osobor in the middle, and for as good as Falslev is, I think Martinez is the more dangerous scorer (and an elite defender when he wants to be).

As for X-factor as defined by a breakout player or excellent supplemental piece who helps a team to reach its potential, I would go with Johnson or whoever wins that battle at point guard. If the former can be a consistent offensive weapon while also staying out of foul trouble enough to carry significant minutes (which I'd qualify as 25-plus MPG), it would give the Aggies an extra layer to their offense that most opponents just cannot account for, given all the slashing talent on this roster around him.

The latter is more about the vacancy left by Darius Brown II, who was my pick for MWC POY in 2023-24 and who leaves a massive pair of shoes to fill. Utah State can still be good with above-average point guard play, but it won't be great unless the new PGs can replace his playmaking. It's probably asking too much to expect either to do that individually, but if their combined efforts can roughly replicate his ability to helm the offense, the Aggies will be right there in the thick of the title race once again.

  • Which FB position group do you have the most questions about?

I think there's a case to be made for both the offensive and defensive lines, but the one that actually jumps out most to me is probably the linebackers. MJ Tafisi and Anthony Switzer were not perfect, but they could be trusted to fill their roles, and there isn't a ton of proven production on this roster with both gone.

Max Alford, assuming he can stay healthy (which isn't always a given when it comes to severe knee injuries like the one he suffered last season), is absolutely good enough to hold down a starting spot. As for his running mate, and the depth behind him? That's where my concern lies. Shaun Dolac's return to Buffalo is a really, really tough loss for the Aggies. They return a trio of contributors in Cole Joyce, Bronson Olevao Jr. and Logan Pili, though Joyce struggled last season, Olevao is also coming off a season-ending injury, and Pili was a serious liability until the final month of the 2023 campaign.

Given the number of new faces here, it seems that Utah State shares my concern. Oregon State transfer John Miller is young and unproven but talented, Jadon Pearson is a converted safety who hasn't played significant snaps at this level, Jon Ross Maye was phenomenal at Lenoir-Rhyne but will need to acclimate to FBS competition, and Clyde Washington was serviceable but unspectacular as a spot contributor at Purdue.

Is there a second starter in that group of newcomers and incumbents? Probably. Do I feel great about the depth behind those starters? Not really.

  • Do we currently have a better idea of what coach Calhoun is deciding to do with the remaining roster spots?

This question came in before Stošić committed, which provides at least half of an answer and makes the other half a lot easier to say confidently: I'd expect Utah State will hold onto that 13th scholarship in hopes of landing a mid-year transfer, a la Will Baker at Nevada. If a difference-maker wants to join the fold between now and September, they might decide to just pull the trigger, but this roster is pretty much full, and the open spot is more valuable than an end-of-the-bench redshirt candidate.

"Give me your schedule predictions for the non-conference based on the hints we have so far. Coach Calhoun seems to be going after the Q1-Q2 games. Do we get an MTE with a decent streaming option this year? What are a few teams on the shortlist that make sense in terms of that level of opponent and travel distance?

"Also how many games total are in the non-conference with the Mountain West going up to 20? Hopefully, that doesn't hurt us in the long run. Maybe we can schedule higher quality non-conference to make up for a possible Q3-Q4 slip-up. We were very fortunate to avoid a bad loss in some games last year." - Aggie Fan Dan

To answer the second question first, we can use the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Missouri Valley and Pac-12, all of which played 20-game league slates last year, as reference points to get a rough estimate for non-conference slots. Save for Stanford, every team in those five leagues played 11 non-conference games in 2023-24. In theory, the increase in league games shouldn't hurt the MWC's strength of schedule – on average, facing a conference opponent was much trickier last season (+9.63 in KenPom's strength of schedule metric) than playing a non-conference game (+1.14), and as long as the membership doesn't totally stink through the first two months of the year, that should remain the case moving forward.

That said, Utah State's hope has been to put together a strong non-conference slate since Calhoun took over and retained some key pieces from last year's squad, and that remains the goal for both one-off matchups and the multi-team event. The Aggies have buy games set against Alcorn State and Utah Tech, they'll be playing a neutral site game against Iowa, and I'd expect the second leg of a home-and-home with St. Louis will happen in Logan this season (though that isn't officially on the schedule yet). You'll probably see at least one more buy game added to the list against a non-DI team (Westminster is the name I've heard, but that's purely rumor), while the remaining volume and quality of the one-off spots will depend on the MTE.

On that front, I would expect good news sooner than later. The Aggies have been fighting to get into a strong event, and I think they're likely to land one. There are five such tournaments with spots still open and no other MWC team in the field: Boardwalk Battle, U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam, Fort Myers Tip-Off, ESPN Events Invitational and Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic. Now, these things are flexible and Utah State could find its way into a field that doesn't currently look open, but of those five, the prize is probably the Diamond Head Classic (which currently includes Charleston, Nebraska and Oregon State, among others) or the B event of the ESPN Events Invitational (which sections off the P5 schools but does have two good mid-majors, St. Bonaventure and Wichita State, in the second division).

I'm not sure that Anderson realized in the moment just how long the frustration with Utah State's complete no-show at Alabama in 2022 would linger. Leading up to that matchup and immediately after it, he came up just short of outright saying that the Aggies wanted to just cash a check and move on, which was on full display in a 55-0 loss that was, somehow, even worse than the lopsided final score.

Honestly, his instincts weren't necessarily wrong. Utah State wasn't beating the then-No. 1 Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa, and its best-case scenario was the come home healthy and focused moving forward. That obviously didn't happen, and I think it's really the ensuing blowout loss at home against Weber State that has retroactively cast the Alabama game in such a negative light. Had the Aggies bounced back from a no-show loss to the No. 1 team with what should have been an easy win against an FCS opponent, I'm not sure anyone would even remember the Alabama game.

But because the fallout was so bad, and because it effectively ended the honeymoon phase between USU and Anderson, concern persists about a repeat performance whenever Utah State draws a power conference opponent.

I bring all of this up to raise a counterpoint and hopefully to assuage some of those concerns. Anderson has faced off with 18 current P4 conference members across his decade as a head coach, including bowl games (and matchups with teams that weren't in power conferences at the time). He's 4-14 in those games, which isn't exactly breathtaking, but isn't dreadful either. He led the Aggies to a pair of wins over Pac-12 teams in 2021, upset Kansas State with Arkansas State in 2020, and knocked off UCF in a bowl game back in 2016. I don't know the all-time winning percentage for G5 teams against P5/4 opponents, but I'd imagine he's somewhere near it.

More important for the sake of this discussion is that 13 of those 18 games were legitimately competitive. The Aggies ran out of steam at Iowa last year, but they made the Hawkeyes work for that win. They tested BYU in both 2021 and 2022. Arkansas State came up a touchdown short of SMU in 2019, was 11 yards away from taking Nebraska to overtime in 2017, scared the hell out of a ranked Missouri team in 2015, and put up a decent amount of resistance against both Tennessee and Miami in 2014.

Does he have a tendency to write off games that look like lost causes? Yes. In matchups at No. 8 USC (2015), Auburn (2016), No. 1 Alabama (2018, 2022) and No. 3 Georgia (2019), Anderson's teams were outscored 273-27 (54.6-5.4, on average). In the other 13 games, though, his groups have lost on average by less than a touchdown, 30.9-24.8.

Utah will probably head to Logan this fall with a ranking next to its name on the scorebug, and it wouldn't be a huge surprise if USC claims the same when the Aggies visit Los Angeles on Sept. 7 (we all know how the preseason polls usually treat the Trojans, no matter their quality). Do either of those games feel like lost causes, though? The Battle of the Brothers will present a massive opportunity for the Aggies to claim a potentially program-defining win at home against a rival they haven't faced in nearly a decade, while USC is breaking in a new quarterback and a new defensive system.

It certainly won't be easy, but staging an upset in either one of those games is not out of the question, and history says that Anderson will have his team up for that sort of occasion.

"Josh Uduje and SJSU. Make it make sense? Money? Starting role at USU or starter at SJSU is no comparison." - Mike Stevens

I think the easiest answer here is to key in on the second part about starting, which Josh Uduje would not have done at Utah State this season. He only has one season of eligibility remaining, and he wants to continue his career professionally overseas, preferably close to his home in England. Could he get there as an excellent sixth man for the Aggies? I certainly think so, and that's the case Utah State successfully made to him when it initially retained his commitment.

This is no small decision, though, and accepting a bench role on a roster with plenty of talent is risky, no matter how much a player enjoys his program. Uduje is good enough to start, if not outright star, on a notable team (or at least a team in a notable conference). Ultimately, the opportunity to do that won out, Uduje entered the portal to explore his options, and San Jose State offered him top billing in a league he already knows.

I was a little surprised by the landing spot (I expected him to either follow Chris Haslam to Oregon State or sign on as a star for newly hired Wyoming coach Sundance Wicks), but I can understand where he's coming from. He's played a crucial role on a team that won its conference and snapped a lengthy NCAA tournament losing streak. He can check that off his list. If his remaining career goals revolve less around winning games and more around establishing himself for a professional career closer to home, there's a lot of value in finding a starring role for his last season of college ball.

"What do you think truly led to the Aggies being left out of the WAC over 50 years ago? I have heard so many rumors but not sure what the truth is. Do we have it or can we only speculate?" - Aggie Fan Dan

I wrote about this a bit two summers ago in this story about the fall of the Skyline Conference, and I think the definitive public-facing reason comes from Mervin Hyman, writing at the time in Sports Illustrated:

"Better than these may be Utah State, which, despite a three-year record of 23 wins, seven losses and two Skyline co-championships, was not invited to join the WAC," Hyman wrote. "The reasons were two: money and policy.

“The member schools of the new conference are unconvinced that the Aggies, nestled in lonely Cache Valley, can draw large enough crowds to justify a big-time football program. And then, though nobody will say it openly, they also feel that Utah State's academic and recruiting standards are not, to put a precise point on it, impeccable.

“To this Aggie Coach John Ralston, whose very success invites the suspicion of rival coaches, says flatly: "We want in and we're going to prove we deserve to get in." What Ralston wants, he often gets. Don't bet against him.”

The real reason couldn't exactly be stated directly by a prominent sportswriter at the time, but the statute of limitations is up and there's no sake in beating around the bush more than 60 years late – BYU did it.

"(BYU AD Edwin Kimball was) unquestionably responsible," Matt Brown of Extra Points told The Aggship back in 2022. "The best understanding that I have was that BYU was the main obstacle to including Utah State. And on paper, it does seem a little bit strange because they were all in the same league before. And in 1960 and 1961, Utah State was better.

"Both Utah and BYU, Utah State would routinely kick their ass. So I think this was partly out of self-interest to go along with any kind of interpersonal conflict that may have developed. They would be the villains in this story."

"Since being in Logan, give us your Aggie Ice Cream flavor rankings of the ones you've tried. Also, do you have any other ideas for Aggie-themed treats that could be sold at games? It seems like there are more opportunities the school could do to boost concessions revenue at games." - Aggie Fan Dan

I'm afraid I can't be of much help on either of these questions, because I'm both a man of habit and dreadful at all things marketing. I've only tried two flavors of Aggie Ice Cream – Birthday Cake and Aggie Blue Mint – and I liked both so much that I've never seen a reason to order anything else.

As for treats at games, I love the idea of a booth for either Angie's or Herm's Inn as a long-established breakfast fan, but I have no idea what either establishment could reasonably supply for a sporting event, given that most people probably don't want to eat a waffle or a country fried steak while sitting in the stands. Logan's Heroes would make a bit more sense as stadium/arena food, though that still might be a bit heavy to qualify as a treat. Maybe USU could set Tandoori Oven up with a little stand for appetizers. It's not the easiest food to take on the road, but the Indian place in Pocatello has a booth at the weekly farmer's market with various goodies, so I know it can be done.