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Here’s how the new and improved Runnin’ Utes are off to a 3-0 start

Utah drubbed visiting Bethune-Cookman 86-55 on Monday night in the first round of the Sunshine Slam, but the schedule stiffens considerably through the remainder of November.

SHARE Here’s how the new and improved Runnin’ Utes are off to a 3-0 start
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Utah Utes forward Bostyn Holt (3) moves around Bethune-Cookman Wildcats center Dylan Robertson (22) during a men’s basketball game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. Utah won 86-55.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

An early non-conference schedule designed to provide a mild test in the opener and then a couple confidence-building wins before the real stuff begins did just that for new University of Utah coach Craig Smith’s Runnin’ Utes.

Utah blitzed one of the worst teams in all of Division I college basketball Monday night in front of an announced crowd of 6,638 at the Huntsman Center, pummeling former NBA star Reggie Theus-coached Bethune-Cookman 86-55 in the first round of the Sunshine Slam.

Up next is the tournament proper, as Utah tangles with Boston College in Daytona Beach, Florida, on Saturday and then gets either Tulsa or Rhode Island on Sunday.

“I saw some really good things tonight, and then some things that, mainly some turnovers, kind of some senseless things. I thought we played really, really well in stretches … I thought our bench was outstanding on both ends of the floor.” — Utah coach Craig Smith.

“Now we gotta put our big boy pants on,” Smith said, recognizing how the level of difficulty goes up dramatically now.

Any of those three in sunny Florida will surely push the Utes more than their first three opponents — Abilene Christian, Sacramento State and the far-from-home Wildcats — did to open the season, although that 70-56 win over ACU will resonate in March. Just watch.

In winning his first three games, Smith became the first Runnin’ Utes coach since Jerry Pimm in 1974 to get off to a 3-0 start in his career on The Hill. The others were Robert Richardson, who started 6-0 in 1909-10, Thomas Fitzpatrick (4-0) and Bill Foster, who, like Pimm, was 3-0 in 1971-72 before taking his first loss.

“I think we’ve come a long way in a short amount of time,” Smith said, noting that he is “pleased, overall” with how the Smith Era has started in Salt Lake City.

Monday’s game was never in doubt, as BC-U came in ranked No. 355 out of 358 teams in Utah resident Ken Pomeroy’s rankings and lived up, or down, to that lowly billing.

Of course, the Utes — No. 82 in KenPom.com — had a role in that, flexing their muscle early and coasting to the easy win. Utah (3-0) has now outscored its three opponents by a combined 74 points, the last two with Minnesota transfer Both Gach getting substantial minutes.

“That’s injected a different level of juice into our team,” Smith said of the addition of Gach, the former Ute who was granted eligibility by the NCAA last Friday. He had 11 points, including a pair of 3-pointers, on Monday.

“With this team, I just can’t praise our camaraderie enough,” said walk-on Harrison Creer, who became the 12th and final Ute to score when he made a free throw in the final minutes.

“That was a dream come true,” said the former Olympus High star and lifelong Utes fan.

Don’t look now, but these guys might be underrated a bit. Their 70-56 win over ACU looks especially good, considering those Wildcats took Texas A&M to the wire, twice, in College Station before succumbing 81-80 in double overtime.

Star guard David Jenkins Jr., the transfer from UNLV, certainly isn’t overrated. He was as good as Smith said he’d be last summer, making 5 of 7 3-point attempts in the first half alone and finishing the half with 20 points as Utah broke out to a 45-23 advantage.

Jenkins added another triple in the second half and finished with a season-high 25 on 7 of 10 shooting.

“When they went zone, I started to feel a little happy,” Jenkins said.

Smith has found his starting five — his rotation is still a work in progress — through this first segment of the schedule as Jenkins Jr., Branden Carlson, Rollie Worster, Marco Anthony and Riley Battin started for the third-straight game.

The first subs in were Dusan Mahorcic, Gach and Bostyn Holt for Carlsen, Battin and Anthony.

Cincinnati transfer Gabe Madsen had a non-COVID illness and did not suit up.

No offense to the players, but the second-best part of the night was David Diamond’s rendition of the national anthem before the game.

Jenkins’ shooting was easily the best, as BC-U elected to play some zone defense in the first half, and the Utes made them pay. Battin and Worster also made triples in the first half when the game was still reasonably in doubt, showing future opponents a little something to worry about on film.

“Obviously, David got going,” Smith said. “That’s just a glimpse of what he can do.”

Zone probably isn’t the way to go against these guys — especially if Madsen gets back quickly and displayed some of the same shooting he displayed in the first two games.

Utah’s defense was good enough Monday, as Bethune-Cookman — which was drubbed 75-54 by South Florida and 71-51 by Middle Tennessee State before the long trip West — shot 24% in the first half before the Utes lost interest a bit in the second.

“I thought we lost our concentration at times on both sides of the floor,” Smith said.

Sure, there were some defensive highlights, such as the time Eli Ballstaedt drew applause from Smith for a backcourt hustle play and Carlson swatted a shot with 9:51 remaining to cover for the walk-on from Wasatch High.

Carlson and Jenkins combined to provide the offensive highlight of the second half, as Carlson took an alley-oop and slammed it home with eight minutes remaining to give the Utes a 70-40 lead.

Carlson, who had a career-high 21 in the win over Sac State, had 14 points and nine rebounds in 21 minutes.

Carlson has been “steady Eddie” through three games, Smith said.

As for Gach, who Smith said is “kind of a blender” who has the versatility to play with any other four guys one might choose to join him, he contributed to the Utes’ high turnover count of 13 with a couple giveaways, but otherwise hasn’t skipped a beat.

“I saw some really good things tonight, and then some things that, mainly some turnovers, kind of some senseless things,” Smith said. “I thought we played really, really well in stretches … I thought our bench was outstanding on both ends of the floor.”