LOGAN — Steven Ashworth is about to embark on his second year as a point guard on the Utah State basketball team. And all things considered, it feels rather improbable that the former Lone Peak High star is even in Cache Valley preparing for his sophomore season.
After committing to the Aggies in November 2017, Ashworth stated he would honor that commitment despite a coaching change at USU, even after he was tempted by the Blue Devils to play for Duke. He then went on a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Indiana — only to return to the Hoosier State less than a year later to play in the NCAA Tournament with the Aggies — and shunned the transfer portal once again after yet another coaching change in Logan.
Not to mention, how implausible is it that during the offseason, Ashworth would marry a former BYU cheerleader who, thanks to the pandemic increasing online higher education opportunities, will be finishing up her degree at Brigham Young while her husband plays basketball for the Aggies?
But through all the twists and turns of the past few years, the son of two BYU graduates says, “I couldn’t be happier to be here at Utah State.”
That statement isn’t much of a surprise, of course. In the words of USU coach Ryan Odom: “Steven’s about as positive of a guy as there is, so he’s been fun to coach.”
Coming off Craig Smith’s bench, Ashworth (6.1 points per game) ended up seventh in scoring on the Aggies during the 2020-21. But thanks to Neemias Queta leaving a year early for the NBA and Marco Anthony and Rollie Worster transferring to Utah to join Smith (the Aggies also lost Alphonso Anderson to Pacific), he’s the third-leading returning scorer behind forward Justin Bean (11.4 ppg) and shooting guard Brock Miller (8.8 ppg).
And what many Aggie fans have probably forgotten is that Ashworth was second on the team in made 3-point field goals last season with 31, while shooting the same percentage (.365) from beyond the arc as Miller, who knocked down 57 treys.
Ashworth, who played in all 29 games and started two when Worster was injured, averaged 19 minutes and totaled 76 assists against 38 turnovers last season.
“I think that when I was given opportunities, I felt like I took advantage of them,” Ashworth says of his first collegiate season. “Overall, I wish I could have proven myself a little bit more and had more opportunities. But at the same time, being a true freshman coming back off a mission and having a few months to prepare for the season, I didn’t really know what to expect coming back.
“So, I would definitely say that I was happy with how last season turned out, and I’m super excited for the possibilities of this year and all we can do moving forward, chasing our ultimate goals of winning the Mountain West and winning in March Madness.”
The Aggies went 20-9 in Smith’s third and final season in Logan, finishing second in the Mountain West with a 15-4 record. Queta was a force in the paint offensively and defensively for Utah State, averaging 14.9 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game before being selected in the second round of the NBA draft by the Sacramento Kings. Without Queta and without Smith, it’s hardly a surprise that Ashworth thinks the Aggies will look very different this season.
“We’re going to a much faster, push-the-pace kind of team this year, both on the offensive and defensive end,” Ashworth predicts. “I think that suits well to our personnel this year with guys like me, (Utah transfer) Rylan Jones, (UMBC transfer) RJ (Eytle-Rock) and Bean; all of those guys can get up and run the floor.
“Last year, I think our play style was more focused around the presence of Neemie and how talented and skilled he was. So, it’s a little bit of an adapt and adjust and see what we can do now. But coach Odom’s always been one who wants to play fast.”
Adapting and adjusting is something that Ashworth knows well. After starting his prep career under Lone Peak coaching legend Quincy Lewis, Ashworth ended up playing his final three seasons under Lewis’ replacement, David Evans. That duo combined to win the 6A state title in March 2018, with Ashworth being named the Deseret News’ 6A MVP after averaging 16.4 assists, 7.1 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 3.0 steals per game.
But just over a week later, USU head coach Tim Duryea was fired, severing his connection not only with Duryea, but also assistant coach Spencer Nelson.
“I would say he was one of the biggest reasons in my final decision to come to USU,” Ashworth says of Nelson, a member of the Utah State Athletics Hall of Fame. “He was a guy who really enjoyed playing here and helped portray the history and greatness of basketball up here.”
Ashworth, who planned to play for the Aggies after serving a mission, already had his call to Indiana before joining his high school teammates at the 2018 GEICO High School Nationals tournament in New York City at the end of March. Lone Peak ended up putting a huge scare into eventual champion Montverde Academy before losing, 87-82, with Ashworth putting up 29 points and knocking down seven 3-pointers — all in the second half.
That performance, which came against future Duke star R.J. Barrett, impressed a lot of people, most notably the Blue Devils. While Duke had already been talking to Ashworth about a spot as a preferred walk-on, the Devils suddenly let him know that they had a scholarship spot open. But accepting the offer from one of the top college basketball programs in the country would require turning down in mission call, as well as backing out of his commitment to the Aggies.
Facing an understandably “tough decision,” Ashworth says he turned to prayer and his family, and ultimately he made the decision to not only go on his mission, but to still play for Utah State when he returned.
“Coach Smith was really good at connecting with me almost immediately after he was hired, and he illustrated how much he wanted me to be a part of the team and how he was excited for my mission and the experiences that I would have,” Ashworth says. “The passion and drive and charisma that he showed in some of those opening press conferences really made me want to be a part of all that.”
It also helped that a young Ashworth had taken a notice of the high school exploits of Sam Merrill when the future Aggie and NBA champion was still at Bountiful High. Ironically, Merrill ended up as missionary companions with an Ashworth family friend in Nicaragua, and when he was at Utah State, he helped make Ashworth comfortable with the idea of becoming an Aggie.
“Sam was really good as far as fellowshipping me whenever I came up here for visits,” Ashworth says of Merrill, currently a member of the Memphis Grizzlies who won an NBA title last summer with the Milwaukee Bucks. “Sam was definitely the role model for what Aggie basketball is and can be.”
In addition, about the same Ashworth was getting ready to leave on his mission, so was his girlfriend, Peyton Burr. A native of Las Vegas, Burr and her family moved to Utah when she was in high school, and she met Ashworth, whose parents, Danny and Denise Ashworth, were originally from Vegas themselves. Burr, who is a year older than Ashworth, was part of the spirit squad at BYU during his senior year before leaving on a mission to Paraguay.
“Since she went to a third-world country while I was out in Indianapolis, the running family joke is that she served a mission while I served a vacation because I was in my dream basketball world,” Ashworth says of being called to the basketball-crazed state of Indiana.
He says that while in the Hoosier state, we put his skills to good use, often meeting up with kids or adults playing basketball in the park and cutting them a deal.
“We had a term in the mission called Beat to Teach; if you beat someone in one-on-one, then you got to share a little message with them,” Ashworth explains with a laugh. “It wasn’t really gambling, but maybe there was something on the line when we would play.”
Burr returned home from Paraguay in December 2019, while Ashworth got home in May 2020, his mission cut short one month due to the pandemic. He ended up proposing just before last Christmas, and he and Peyton were married last May at the temple in Newport Beach, which allowed her young brother to attend the ceremony while he was serving his mission in California.
All of that came about a month after Smith accepted the head coaching position at Utah, and Odom was hired as his replacement after a successful run at Maryland, Baltimore County. Not that Ashworth waited until Odom’s hiring to make the decision that he was staying at Utah State.
“Bean and I were roommates last year, and we were really tight when the news broke about coach Smith,” Ashworth recalls. “We had a sit-down conversation and basically said, ‘We’re here to stay. We’re Aggies, and we’re going to make the most of whatever happens. And we’ve got faith that (USU athletic director) John Hartwell is going to be able to find the right coach.’”
“And he has,” Ashworth adds.
Ashworth says he watched the game in 2018 when UMBC stunned Virginia in the NCAA Tournament, becoming the first No. 16 seed to ever knock off a No. 1 seed.
“Other than that, I didn’t really know much about coach Odom, and it seemed like kind of a crazy hire going all the way to Maryland to find him,” Ashworth admits. “But John’s good at that. He finds the guys who are right for this program and right for this fan base, and coach Odom’s that guy.”
And Odom seems to feel similarly about Ashworth, who will likely battle with Jones, who is coming off an injury-plagued sophomore season, for the starting point guard spot this season.
“Steven Ashworth has moxie,” Odom declares. “He’s a believer, first and foremost in himself, but also in our team.”
But what Ashworth and Jones have that Odom doesn’t is experience with the rivalry between Utah State and Brigham Young. Jones’ father, Chris, was an assistant coach under Stew Morrill, when he was growing up, while Ashworth obviously grew up in Cougar country and is hoping he and the Aggies fare better on Dec. 8 at the Marriott Center than they did last year in a tough, 67-64 loss at the Spectrum.
“It’s actually funny,” Ashworth says with a mischievous grin. “There are a lot of BYU fans — and they wouldn’t want me to name names — that have said the only game they want BYU to lose is the game against Utah State.
“I’ve gotten a lot of community support, which has been great. And I’ve seen a lot of Aggie fans down there kind of show out. And they’re like, ‘Finally, we’ve got a kid from Utah County that we can cheer for.’ So, it’s fun and always good to go back home and embrace the rivalry.”
Jeff Hunter is a contributor for the Deseret News.