2023 Cayman Islands Classic - Men's

Is Utah State Basketball A March Sleeper? Cayman Islands Classic Takeaways

Is Utah State Basketball A March Sleeper? Cayman Islands Classic Takeaways

Here’s a look back at Utah State Men's Basketball's romp to the Men’s Cayman Islands Classic title and more takeaways from the event.

Nov 22, 2023 by Briar Napier

Down year? What down year?

Utah State, predicted in the preseason to finish in the bottom half of its league after losing a coach who has helped it be on one of the best runs in school history, doesn’t seem to be skipping a beat after a trip to the NCAA Tournament last season.

The Aggies showed that with authority at the Men’s Cayman Islands Classic this week in George Town, winning three games in as many days against some of the country’s best mid-major competition to capture the tournament championship and give themselves some momentum ahead of numerous upcoming nonconference clashes. 

USU was the clear star of the show in the islands, but other squads in the field showed that they’re worth keeping an eye on as the season gets into full gear and nonconference play heats up during Thanksgiving week — especially those with the potential to be true bracket-busters in March.

Here’s a look back at Utah State’s romp to the Men’s Cayman Islands Classic title and more takeaways from the event as holiday tournaments across the country have a streaming home this season on FloHoops:

Aggie Annihilation

A consistently strong mid-major across the past five years under coaches Craig Smith (now at Utah) and Ryan Odom (now at VCU), Utah State has qualified for the NCAA Tournament in four of the past five seasons with four 20-win campaigns in that same stretch. 

But when Odom left in the offseason to take the Rams job after a 26-9 year (plus another March Madness appearance) in 2022-23, turnover again came to the Aggies program as it would be left to whoever would be in charge next to rebuild and restore its tradition. Enter first-year coach Danny Sprinkle, who has USU at 5-1 thus far and holding a largely dominant Men’s Cayman Islands Classic title. 

Poached from Montana State after taking the Bobcats to back-to-back Big Sky Conference Tournament crowns, Sprinkle now has his first trophy in charge of the Aggies, clinching the tournament championship with a 79-49 rout over Stephen F. Austin in the final. 

Only up 32-26 at the half, Utah State more than doubled up (47-23) the Lumberjacks in scoring the rest of the way as four players got double-figure scoring numbers, led by standout redshirt freshman guard Mason Falslev’s game-high 19 points, nine rebounds and six assists on 8-for-10 shooting. Having rolled through Marshall (83-60) in the opening round before fending off Akron (65-62) in the semifinals, USU had a lot of smooth sailing in the islands, and Montana State transplants were crucial in the Aggies’ run to the Cayman Islands Classic title, too. 

Junior Great Osobor — an important player in both of the Bobcats’ NCAA tourney teams the past two seasons — was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player as he continues his massive start to the season (20.5 points, 10.0 rebounds per game as of Wednesday morning), while fellow MSU transfer and guard Darius Brown II put up a double-double against SFA with 11 points and 10 assists. 

It’s only a few weeks into the season, but Utah State’s projected ninth-place finish in the Mountain West Conference already looks far too low if the Aggies keep playing like they have been, they’ll be poking at the league’s heavyweights.

Drake Basketball Star Tucker DeVries’ Big Day

Seasoned mid-major fans have known what Tucker DeVries means to Drake for years. The son of Bulldogs coach Darian DeVries and the reigning Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year helped Drake win the MVC Tournament title for the first time in 15 years a season ago, and when Tucker goes, Drake goes. 

That was more than apparent throughout the Cayman Islands Classic.

 In Drake’s opener against Oakland, DeVries struggled badly against the Golden Grizzlies as he only went 1 for 10 from the field with five points, though his 11 rebounds did help the Bulldogs pull just enough away in the second half for an 85-77 victory as Kevin Overton and Atin Wright each pitched in with 22-point games. His outing against Stephen F. Austin in the semifinals wasn’t much better, with DeVries only going 4 for 11 from the floor for 10 points as the Lumberjacks rolled to a 92-68 win and the Bulldogs were limited to just 32% shooting in the second half.

But when DeVries finally came alive in the third-place game of the Cayman Islands Classic against Akron, the Bulldogs showed just how dangerous they can be when everyone is firing on all cylinders. DeVries on Tuesday exploded back onto the scoring scene with 33 points (his second 30-point game this season already) and nine rebounds, with 25 of those points coming in the second half of Drake’s 79-59 win over the Zips as the Bulldogs shot a blistering 67% from the field in the second half this time around. 

Appearing to be squarely back in rhythm, Drake and DeVries will hope to utilize their strong finish in the islands for more regular-season success as the preseason MVC favorite. 

LMU Basketball Needs a Boost

Expected by many to be one of the “best of the rest” in the West Coast Conference this season behind league juggernauts Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s, Loyola Marymount — after winning 19 games and beating both the Bulldogs and the Gaels last season for two top-15 victories — sputtered a bit at the Cayman Islands Classic, but it at least recovered to end its tournament with a win as the Lions defeated Florida International 61-60 on Tuesday thanks to Justin Wright’s game-winner with under five seconds to play in the seventh-place game. 

Still, LMU had a bit of an underwhelming time in the Cayman Islands after defeats to Stephen F. Austin and Oakland, and with the always-brutal WCC slate approaching, the remainder of nonconference play will be to ensure that the Lions don’t continue to slide backward. 

Five players averaging double-figure scoring figures, however — with forward Keli Leaupepe, a two-time All-WCC Honorable Mention nominee and a member of this year’s league Preseason All-WCC Team, not even one of them — shows a balance in the offense that can help LMU get out the rut and back into contention as a potential WCC spoiler. 

One notable fix, however, would be stringing two halves together; at the Cayman Islands Classic, LMU's games had a great half and an underwhelming half. SFA blitzed the Lions for 53 points in the second half of their first-round meeting, for instance (after LMU had a six-point lead going into the locker room), while the heroics against FIU only came after the Lions nearly lost an 11-point halftime lead and were in danger of being sent back to the west coast with a last-place finish in the Cayman Islands Classic. 

The Lions can certainly rebound from their slow start — after all, they started 1-2 before their strong finish a season ago — but their performance in the Cayman Islands Classic showed that there is some work to do for LMU to be a consistent fighter in the top half of the WCC this season.