The Craig Smith era will officially begin in two weeks when the University of Utah opens its 2021-22 season against Abilene Christian at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City.
Are the Runnin’ Utes close to being ready?
Certainly, they said Tuesday in their weekly press briefing before practice.
“I would say right now we are still obviously getting better, while trying to fine-tune things and hone in on what really works for this team,” Smith said.
The Utes participated in a closed scrimmage against Wyoming last Saturday at the Huntsman Center, and although they are forbidden from even discussing who the opponent was, let alone the final score, several internet reports had Utah winning by a substantial margin.
“It was good,” said junior center Lahat Thioune. “We started a little bit slow, but we ended on a good note. So yeah, it was a good game.”
Added fellow center Dusan Mahorcic, the senior from Illinois State by way of Belgrade, Serbia: “The first 10 minutes, we started slow. Nobody was scared, but everybody was nervous. So after a bit we got free and relaxed and played our style. I think we executed our stuff like we wanted to do. It was good.”
For what it is worth, Wyoming is picked to finish tied for eighth with New Mexico in the Mountain West race this year in coach Jeff Linder’s second season at the helm. Utah State, Smith’s former school, is picked fifth.
After joking that the Runnin’ Utes have to get better in only two areas — “offense and defense” — Smith called it a “great” closed scrimmage.
“I thought it was really, really competitive,” he said, noting the teams played two 24-minute halves “and just threw everybody out there.”
All the Utes played except Both Gach, the former Ute and recent Minnesota transfer who still hasn’t been cleared by the NCAA to participate as a two-time transfer.
“I thought we did a great job in transition defense,” Smith said. “We rebounded it really well, and that has been a huge emphasis for this team, like we have talked about in the past, because we were at the bottom of the league, or next to the bottom of the league, in that area.”
Smith said the Utes took care of the ball and made their free throws. He confirmed the players’ reports that they got off to a slow start.
“We were a bit disjointed early, which you kind of expect,” he said. “I thought our hearts were in the right place. I thought we were a little bit nervous, quite frankly. We prepared like it was any other game, whether it was a regular season game or a tournament game, in terms of our pregame. Everything was new to everybody.”
Smith was pleased because he told players to arrive before 8 a.m. for the 10 a.m. tipoff, and every guy was there at 7 a.m.
“So that was cool to see,” he said.
As the Deseret News reported two weeks ago, it still appears Smith’s starting lineup for the exhibition game against Westminster on Nov. 4 will be Branden Carlson at the five, Riley Battin at the four and a combination of Rollie Worster, Marco Anthony and UNLV graduate transfer David Jenkins Jr. on the guard line or at the three spot.
At least, those five were together in an opening full-court drill in the media-viewing portion of Tuesday’s practice.
Smith said he has been “really patient” in working through different lineups in preseason training camp before starting to finalize a few things last week in the days leading up to the scrimmage.
“We are definitely spending more time with certain lineups playing together more now,” he said. “And certainly moving forward you are starting to see certain lineups playing together a lot more than we did just a week ago.”
Smith said presumed backup guards/wings Gabe Madsen, Jaxon Brenchley and Lazar Stefanovic played well in the scrimmage, and once again said the Utes’ guard line will be really deep and talented.
“I thought we had a very good practice yesterday, and hopefully we build on it today,” he said. “But it (the scrimmage) definitely broke up the monotony and got those juices flowing in the Huntsman Center.”
The exhibition game against Westminster a week from Thursday will tip off at 6 p.m., and admission is free. Because they are not doing the traditional “Night With the Runnin’ Utes” this year, players and coaches will be made available for autographs and pictures after the game on the floor of the Huntsman Center.