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From Year 1 to Year 2 in the Craig Smith era at the University of Utah, the Runnin’ Utes made enough gains last season to improve their overall win total by six over the previous year.
That still wasn’t enough to get Utah into the postseason, as the Runnin’ Utes finished the year 17-15 overall and seventh in the Pac-12 standings, following a six-game losing streak to end the season.
Smith, though, is confident he’s found the right combination of players to give the Utes a shooter’s chance to make a run at the NCAA Tournament in the program’s final season as a member of the Pac-12, before Utah joins the Big 12 Conference next year.
He’s also realistic about the expectations surrounding a Utah program with a proud history, one that includes a national championship in 1944 and reaching the national championship game in 1998.
“I like where we’re progressing to, but at the end of the day, here’s the deal: our expectations every year are to find our way into the NCAA Tournament and win when we get there. That’s the expectation and that’s the standard.” — Utah men’s basketball coach Craig Smith
“I like where we’re progressing to, but at the end of the day, here’s the deal: our expectations every year are to find our way into the NCAA Tournament and win when we get there. That’s the expectation and that’s the standard,” Smith told the Deseret News last month at Pac-12 basketball media days in Las Vegas.
Utah is a far cry from the Rick Majerus era of the 1990s to early 2000s, when the Utes made 11 NCAA Tournament appearances under the Hall of Fame coach.
Since then, NCAA Tournament success has come sparingly.
Ray Giacoletti took the Runnin’ Utes to the NCAAs in his first season replacing Majerus — and made the Sweet Sixteen — but lasted just three seasons. Under Jim Boylen, Utah made one NCAA Tournament appearance in four years.
Smith’s predecessor, Larry Krystkowiak, took four seasons to get the Runnin’ Utes in the NCAAs and Utah made the Sweet Sixteen in the first of back-to-back appearances. But Krystkowiak’s final five teams never sniffed the NCAAs, leading to Smith’s takeover.
In his third season, the Utah head coach will be a central figure in whether the program can return to the postseason.
Fifth-year senior center Branden Carlson, the team’s unquestioned leader who tested the NBA draft waters before ultimately deciding to run it back for one more season on the Hill, believes Smith’s coaching style can bring out the best in this year’s team.
“He gets the most out of his players just because of the excitement he brings. He makes people want to be better,” Carlson said of Smith. “He makes people want to come in and work. He gets people excited to be there and play for him.”
Senior point guard Rollie Worster has played for Smith the longest — he was at Utah State one season with the coach before joining him in Utah ahead of the 2021-22 season.
Don’t forget: in Smith’s three seasons as Utah State’s head coach, the Aggies qualified for the NCAA Tournament every year.
“He’s a true player’s coach,” Worster said of Smith. “One of the big things is he always goes up to guys and says, ‘I believe you. I trust you.’ In film, he reiterates it, whether you make a mistake or you make a great play. He still trusts in you and believes you and wants you to do your best and obviously win as a team but also perform at the level he knows you can.”
Several Runnin’ Utes said it will take a more consistent effort for Utah to snap that NCAA drought and improve on a season last year that fizzled towards the end.
“Last year, we didn’t finish great and I know everyone — especially the guys who came back — were disappointed with how we finished the year after starting out so good,” Worster said. “I think just being able to, whether you have a loss or two or a bad game, being able to bounce back and flush it and compete at our best level and minimize mistakes out there is big for us.”
Part of that more consistent effort, sophomore guard Wilguens Junior Exacte said, is getting in the right mindset.
“Staying connected and making sure our minds are in the right place,” Exacte explained. “I feel like this team, we’re so talented. We’re very physical. It’s all about being together, having the right mindset and being hungry at all times.”
Carlson’s return is the biggest catalyst for optimism surrounding this year’s Runnin’ Utes squad. The 7-foot big man averaged 16.4 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2 blocks last season while shooting 49.6% from the field in earning Pac-12 all-conference first-team honors.
Much of the same — if not more — is expected again from Carlson, who landed on the Pac-12’s preseason all-conference first team this year.
“I think of where he was two years ago to where he is today — he just keeps getting better every year,” his coach said.
Smith joked his vertical improved six inches when Carlson — a Bingham High product — decided to return and use his extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic, after declaring for the NBA draft and getting feedback from the pro level.
“He could have done a lot of different things as a grad transfer, NBA or what have you,” Smith said. “That guy is passionate and loves the Runnin’ Utes. He has so much pride in this basketball program. He has so much pride in this athletic department and the University of Utah as a Salt Lake City kid. It truly matters to him.”
Carlson echoed that appreciation for Utah.
“I love this program. We have unfinished business,” he said.
Carlson is far from the only player back for Smith’s program — there are eight returning players, including four seniors with extensive starting experience last season, among them Worster, sharpshooting guard Gabe Madsen and lengthy front-court defender Ben Carlson.
“Those guys know our system, our style. They know the standard and they know what we’re looking for in the locker room. They know what’s expected when you step on the practice floor, they know how we go about our business,” Smith said.
Promising sophomores Exacte and center Keba Keita are also back, after making contributions last season as freshmen.
Smith went to work this offseason and added four transfers, many of whom were brought in to help fix an offense that disappeared for long stretches last season. Injuries also crippled the Utes’ guard line at the end of last year and exposed Utah’s depth and experience issues.
Two of those transfers — guard Cole Bajema from Washington and forward/center Lawson Lovering from Colorado — came from within the Pac-12 footprint, while Deivon Smith joined the Utes from Georgia Tech and Hunter Erickson from Salt Lake Community College after two years at BYU.
The Runnin’ Utes’ lone exhibition game — a win over Westminster — showcased what these new players could bring to Utah. Bajema had a team-high 18 points and hit three 3-pointers, Erickson added 16 points and was a perfect 4 of 4 on 3s and Lovering even hit a shot from long range while scoring 15 against the Division II opponent.
True freshman forward Jake Wahlin also earned praise from Craig Smith for “making the right plays” and could be relied upon as he gets caught up to speed.
“This team has a lot of returning guys, and a lot of guys coming in new who have a lot of experience. That is a great combination really to take this team where we want it to go,” said Madsen, who led Utah with 62 made 3-pointers last season while averaging 11.6 points per game.
Rounding out the roster are returnees Luka Tarlac and Brandon Haddock, along with freshmen Jayden Teat, Ayomide Bamisile and Jerry Huang.
“It seems to be a group that has an attitude that craves improvement. We look a lot different,” Craig Smith said.
Utah is heading into this season relatively healthy, though one lingering question surrounds Deivon Smith, the shifty point guard who would add athleticism to the Utes’ lineup.
The team is still waiting for word from the NCAA to find out if he will be granted a waiver that would allow the two-time transfer (he started his college career with one season at Mississippi State) to play this season.
If not, Deivon Smith will be forced to redshirt.
Even if he isn’t available, one year after averaging 7.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists for the Yellow Jackets, Worster is optimistic of the makeup of this year’s roster and how it can help the Utes offensively.
“We’re really deep, we’ve got a lot of guys who can play at a high level. We spread the floor great, we have a lot of shooters, adding Cole, Deivon, Hunter to our other guys,” he said. “Even Lawson has been shooting well from mid-range for a big guy, which is huge. We can spread the floor, and then we can also go inside.”
The Runnin’ Utes’ 11-game nonconference slate — Utah tips off the season Monday at home against Eastern Washington (7:30 p.m. MST) — will include six games at the Huntsman Center and a stretch of three straight contests against in-state opponents Southern Utah (Dec. 5), BYU (Dec. 9) and Utah Valley (Dec. 16).
There’s also a neutral-site game against Hawaii at the Delta Center on Nov. 30.
Utah will only play one road nonconference game, but it’s a big one — Nov. 27 at Saint Mary’s. The Gaels are No. 38 in KenPom’s preseason ratings and it’s a Quad 1 win if Utah prevails.
The Runnin’ Utes’ MTE this year is the Charleston Classic, where Utah will play Wake Forest in the first round and could face top 5 Houston in its second of three games at TD Arena in South Carolina the weekend before Thanksgiving.
That’s another potential set of NCAA resume-building opportunities in an eight-team field that also includes Dayton, LSU, North Texas, St. John’s and Towson.
Unlike the last couple seasons when Pac-12 teams played a couple league games in early December, the 20-game full conference slate begins around the new year this season.
The Runnin’ Utes start league play at home against two teams — Washington and Washington State — voted behind Utah in the league’s preseason media poll, and will see many of the top-rated Pac-12 programs visit Salt Lake City during a stretch where six of nine games are at home from Jan. 11 to Feb. 10.
One of the toughest stretches will come near the end, when Utah plays five of its final seven regular-season Pac-12 games on the road in mid-to-late February, including three straight at USC (Feb. 15), UCLA (Feb. 18) and Colorado (Feb. 24).
“The hard part now, with the conference staying at 20 (Pac-12) games but moving all 20 games until after Christmas, we only have 11 games from Nov. 6 to Dec. 29. That’s not much and it’s three games in four days,” Craig Smith said.
“... There’s going to be a lot of practice time, and the guys are going to need to handle that in the right way because once you get to January and February, you’re going to have practice time, but it’s going to be a lot different.”
At least on the surface, the Runnin’ Utes appear to have the makings of a competitive team that could earn its way into the NCAA Tournament discussion if Utah can stay healthy, lean on the leadership of its upperclassmen — both returners and transfers — and continue to develop depth and consistency.
Those are big ifs.
ESPN’s latest bracketology has five Pac-12 teams making the NCAA Tournament this season, meaning Utah would need to outperform its predicted seventh-place conference finish in the Pac-12 preseason media poll.
Utah’s head coach sees the opportunities there to make a splash this season against what he is predicting will be a very competitive conference race, with teams like Arizona, USC, UCLA, Colorado and Oregon expected to be the frontrunners.
“Preseason polls are specifically a sign of the respect your team has earned. You’ve got to be able to go out and earn respect, you’ve got to prove it,” Craig Smith said at Pac-12 media day.
“Do I think we can go out and be better than seventh? Yes, I do. But I also think it can work the other way because of the depth (of the conference), and I think there are going to be a ton of close games in the league. It’s going to come down to who can win those games consistently.”
The goal is clear, though: Utah desperately wants to snap the seven-year NCAA Tournament drought.
“I didn’t come back to not make the tournament this year,” Branden Carlson said.
The question is, do they have the roster to make it happen?