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How will new Runnin’ Utes coach Craig Smith fare in the Pac-12? Some experts weigh in at media day

Branden Carlson, Riley Battin and Smith represented the Utes at Pac-12 headquarters in San Francisco on Wednesday and said they are ready for the challenge of a much-improved league that shined in the NCAA Tournament last spring

Utah head coach Craig Smith, wearing a suit and tie, speaks
Utah head coach Craig Smith speaks during the Pac-12 Conference NCAA college basketball media day Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, in San Francisco.
Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Sure, Craig Smith turned around men’s basketball programs at South Dakota and Utah State.

But how will the new University of Utah coach with seemingly boundless energy, enthusiasm and that Midwestern charm do in the big leagues? How will Smith handle the bright lights of the Pac-12 conference, the Power Five league that is coming off its best performance ever in the NCAA Tournament?

The 48-year-old father of four was formally introduced to the rest of the league and the reporters who cover it on Wednesday at the Pac-12 media day at conference headquarters in downtown San Francisco.

It didn’t take him long to turn on the charm, as he rolled out some of the old stories that USU fans never got tired of hearing — until he left Logan last March — and Utes fans are just now becoming familiar with.

Say this about the man: He can talk. And he can hold court, as it were, away from the court as much as on it.

“Bring on the competition,” Smith said. He was talking about the league as a whole and how it posted a record 13 Big Dance wins last spring, but he easily could have been talking about winning the award for most gregarious new coach.

That was a cakewalk.

“His energy never ceases to amaze me,” said Utah center Branden Carlson, who attended the get-together along with forward Riley Battin in the high-rent palace that former commissioner Larry Scott so famously established as the so-called Conference of Champions’ posh offices.

The only other new coach is Arizona hire Tommy Lloyd, the former Gonzaga assistant. But while Arizona was picked by media members to finish in tie for fourth place with Oregon State, Utah was picked to finish 10th.

Smith was unfazed.

“It is what we anticipated,” he said. “The biggest thing with polls is it just shows the level of respect people have for your program. And how do you get respect? You got to earn respect. Nobody is going to give you anything. We gotta go out and earn that day to day in practice. We got to earn it when they tip it off for real and they put 40 minutes on that clock.”

Bottom line, Smith said, when asked to assess his expectations in his first year, is to get to the NCAA Tournament and win games while there.

“I know this: We got a group of guys with an attitude that craves improvement,” he said of the 2021-22 Utes. “We have a group of guys that it is thoroughly enjoyable to go to the gym on a day-to-day basis and practice with. … I will say this: We have gotten a lot better in a short amount of time, and I can’t wait to see where this team goes.”

Several of the league’s other coaches and broadcasters said Smith will be fine, and he’s got the track record to prove it.

Former Stanford standout Casey Jacobsen, a one-time BYU recruit, is now a college basketball analyst for Fox Sports and the Pac-12 Networks. He called Smith a “no-brainer hire” for the U.

“I am always really impressed when I see a coach who has turned over not just one program, but multiple programs,” Jacobsen said. “That’s when you know that what he did before wasn’t a fluke. The guy knows what he is doing.”

Jacobsen said he called one of Smith’s games when he was at South Dakota and the Coyotes took a Power Five team to the wire.

“It was impressive,” Jacobsen said.

The analyst believes the Utes “hit a home run” by hiring someone familiar with the state’s unique culture.

“I do think that recruiting to Utah is unique relative to the Pac-12 and all the other places kids could go on the West Coast, more specifically,” Jacobsen said. “So you do need a guy who has proven that he knows that area and knows the different challenges that kids who are going to Utah will face. He knows that. He’s done that.”

Cal coach Mark Fox knows what Smith faces as a new coach in the Power Five ranks because he did the same thing, moving from Nevada of the Western Athletic Conference to Georgia of the SEC.

“Going from Nevada to the SEC was a big change because it was a change of regions of the country,” Fox said. “Craig’s advantage is he stayed in the same region, the same state. So from that standpoint, it will be an easier transition for him.”

Fox said there are great coaches at all levels, but the thing that separates the Pac-12 from leagues such as the Mountain West and WAC is individual talent. Recruiting is huge at this level, Fox said, noting that it is currently changing due to new transfer rules and NIL legislation.

“When you get to some of these elite leagues, you are playing against NBA first-round draft picks, and so you have to recruit and play a little bit differently,” he said. “I think Craig’s transition will go smoothly, especially since he stayed in the same region.”

Washington State coach Kyle Smith made the jump from San Francisco of the West Coast Conference to WSU and slowly seems to be turning that program into a winner. The Cougars were picked to finish eighth on Wednesday.

“I am sure (Smith and Lloyd) will be honored, tickled, to find out just how competitive it will be,” said Kyle Smith (no relation). “It is just an exciting league to be a part of now, just with the success we had in the postseason. These two (coaching) additions, and the success they have had (in the past) I think will make the league better.”

New Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff welcomed Smith and Lloyd into the league in his opening remarks.

“All of us are excited to add you to our group of talented coaches,” Kliavkoff said.

A West Coast reporter asked Smith why he made the move.

He said it is because Utah “has such a rich tradition of excellence” and because Salt Lake City “is a world-class city” with great people and a great university.

“It was going to take a special place to leave what we had going there at Utah State,” he said, noting that the Aggies went 74-24 under his watch.

Battin and Carlson were asked what they did to improve in the offseason. Both said they got bigger and stronger with the help of new strength coach Logan Ogden. Smith told the audience that “Ogden is from Iowa,” but the quip sailed over the heads of those unfamiliar with two of Utah’s bigger cities.

Carlson has clearly added some bulk to his frame, but he said he is at 220 pounds and trying to get to 230.

“I’ve been told every day since I was 8, ‘go eat another sandwich,’” he said, drawing laughter.

Battin is one of those rare players who entered the transfer portal and then decided to stay put. After talking to Smith, who replaced Larry Krystkowiak, Battin says he “quickly” took his name out of the portal.

“It is pretty crazy,” he said, talking about how his phone blew up. “I was in it for a week. I had had enough.”

Carlson said one of the best parts of media day is meeting stars from other teams away from the court.

“You can actually have a good conversation with each other, so it has been nice,” Carlson said.

As the only married Ute, he said he was asked about that a lot by the Pac-12 media members in attendance.

“Nothing strange or really out there,” he said of the questions. “I was expecting questions about being married, and I got them.”