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‘There’s a great synergy with this group’: Runnin’ Utes coach likes what he see after a week of practices

Coach Craig Smith said Tuesday that the Utes will play in a closed scrimmage in late October and in an exhibition game on Nov. 4 before the opener vs. Abilene Christian on Nov. 9

Utah basketball coach Craig Smith talks to his players in a team huddle as the team opens camp on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.
Coach Craig Smith talks to his players as the University of Utah’s men’s basketball team opens camp with practice inside the Huntsman Basketball Facility in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Few college basketball teams in the country will be more of a mystery before they take the floor this season than the Runnin’ Utes.

That happens when half the roster is new. There’s a new sheriff in town as well.

That would be head coach Craig Smith, who spoke to reporters Tuesday before conducting his sixth practice of preseason training camp.

“We had four really, really good practices (last week),” Smith said. “High energy, high intensity. The guys had an attitude that creates improvement. There is a great synergy with this group.”

Monday’s practice was “a little bit up and down,” Smith acknowledged, saying that some new elements were installed and perhaps some players were over-analyzing everything.

“The more you think, the slower your feet get, right?” Smith said.

At any rate, the coach said the Utes are gelling, with the season opener against Abilene Christian at the Huntsman Center just five weeks away.

“It is a great group to be around,” Smith said.

There wasn’t much in the form of news revealed Tuesday, other than Smith said the Utes will play an exhibition game on Nov. 4 against an opponent he didn’t name. Utah will also play in one of those “secret scrimmages” against another Division I team, most likely in late October.

“I love having one exhibition game (instead of two closed scrimmages, or two exhibitions),” Smith said. “It is like a dress rehearsal. It is game-like. … It is also gives the clock operator practice, which we all know is needed.”

He quickly mentioned he wasn’t referring to Utah’s clock operator, but clock operators in general.

One of the next items of business will be picking team captains, but Smith isn’t quite ready to say how, or when, that will happen.

“Typically, the way we have done it, is it has been seniors,” he said. “Captains can come from a coach, but I think at end of the day, on most teams, the captains work themselves out, because on most teams you know who the players really respect. And that usually kind of finds its way.”

Utah State transfer Marco Anthony, a senior, and returner Jaxon Brenchley, a junior, were selected to speak with reporters Tuesday, but little can, or should, be read into that.

Two other returnees — junior center Branden Carlson and and senior forward Riley Battin — will represent the Utes and the Pac-12 men’s basketball media day next Wednesday in San Francisco.

“That being said (about how captains are picked), we are thinking about doing some things a little different this year where we do assign some things that way,” Smith said. “So if we decide to go that route it will be in the next couple of weeks.”

Smith said he’s been pleased with how quickly all the players are picking up his system, and reiterated what he said last week about wanting to put the Runnin’ back into the Runnin’ Utes.

“Yeah, I want to run,” he said. “This team can run. We have got good speed. Like, we can get out and go, up and down the lineup. It is hard to be a good running team if your bigs can’t run.”

And Utah’s bigs — holdovers Carlson and Lahat Thioune and Illinois State transfer Dusan Mahorcic — can run. Larry Krystkowiak used to say that Carlson could run like a deer for someone his size (7-footer).

The coach said he’s a long way from setting a starting lineup, and a short viewing of practice revealed few clues. So take this as a hunch, nothing more, nothing less: UNLV transfer David Jenkins Jr. and USU transfer Rollie Worster at the guard line, Anthony on the wing, Battin at the four and Carlson at the five.

The biggest question might be at the five, where Mahorcic could move into the starting lineup — not because he’s better, but perhaps to keep Carlson from getting tagged with some early fouls. Also, no word yet on Minnesota transfer Both Gach’s appeal to the NCAA for a waiver as a two-time transfer.

“Everybody still thinks they are playing 38 minutes a night,” Smith said, only half-joking. “So what will it be like when things start getting whittled down?”

Good question.

But he’s got a month to figure it out.