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‘We are going to surprise some people’: Utes unfazed by being picked so low in suddenly deep Pac-12

With new coach Craig Smith taking over, Utes don’t get a lot of respect from Pac-12 media voters, not that they’re going to lose much sleep over it

Utah’s Branden Carlson, right, speaks as Riley Battin listens during Pac-12 media day, Oct. 13, 2021, in San Francisco.
Utah’s Branden Carlson, right, speaks to reporters as Riley Battin listens during the Pac-12 media day Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, in San Francisco.
Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Riley Battin and Branden Carlson, the only two regulars from last year’s Runnin’ Utes men’s basketball team who returned after coach Larry Krystkowiak was fired and replaced by Craig Smith, were actually happy to see the results of the Pac-12 preseason media poll released Wednesday in conjunction with the league’s media day.

The Utes have been picked to finish 10th.

“All I gotta say is ‘wait and see,’” said Carlson, who averaged 9.4 points and 4.6 rebounds with a team-high 42 blocks last season. “I think we are going to surprise a lot of people.”

Added Battin, also at Pac-12 headquarters in San Francisco on Wednesday: “I mean, it is just preseason rankings. We didn’t expect to be ranked that high, because of the situation we are in. But we love it. Being an underrated team like that, it just gives us a bigger chip (on our shoulders) and we will move forward.”

This is the third time Utah has been predicted to finish between 10th and last place since it joined the league in 2011-12.

The Utes have done better than predicted by the media every year except two years when they matched the pick: 2014-15 when they finished second and 2020-21 when they finished eighth.

“Utah has been picked low the past two years I have been here, and we have always finished higher than picked,” Carlson said. “I think it is going to continue to be that way. … It is just guesses right now. Everybody thinks we are a new team and are going to struggle. But I think we are going to surprise some people.”

To no one’s surprise, UCLA is picked to win the league after last year’s unexpected run to the Final Four, a run that started with a first-round win over BYU. The Bruins received 32 of 34 first-place votes.

They return all five starters and every contributor for coach Mick Cronin.

“I am really excited by the success that all our teams that made the NCAAs had,” said Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley.

Oregon, regular-season champ the past two years, was picked second and received two first-place votes.

Having made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAAs last year, USC was picked No. 3. Arizona and Oregon State were picked to tie for fourth.

The Wildcats feature former Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd, who joins Utah’s Smith as a new head coach in the league.

Only Washington and California are picked to finish worse than Utah.

Battin said none of it matters when the season starts in early November.

“We don’t get caught up in the preseason stuff,” said Battin, who was MVP of the Powder League, a summer pro-am league held in the south Salt Lake Valley over the summer. “Because it is just people guessing. We just gotta keep working and go out and prove it when the time comes.”

The Utes also were shut out in the Pac-12 preseason all-conference teams, which included a 10-member first team, a five-member second team and six honorable-mention selections.

Players had to get eight or more votes to make honorable mention.

“Not having any of us on that is kinda the same as the team picks,” Battin said. “It is someone’s opinion about it and if you don’t like it, go out there and work and prove that you deserve to be on it.”

Battin and Carlson are the only returners who averaged more than six minutes per game last season.

Battin averaged 6.6 points and 3.4 rebounds last season, mainly coming off the bench. He started in nine games.

Carlson said he was “shocked” that no Utes received preseason accolades.

“People are going to be surprised, with what happens, how good the players on our team are,” he said. “They will get their names out there.”

One of the those players could be Both Gach, the Minnesota transfer who is still waiting to be cleared by the NCAA as a two-time transfer. Of course, Gach began his college career at Utah, and was one of the Utes who represented the program two years ago at media day, along with Timmy Allen.