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Craig Smith era off to solid start, but tougher games await at Sunshine Slam this weekend

Runnin’ Utes (3-0) have emerged as one of the top rebounding teams in the country, but Boston College will provide a sterner test on Saturday

Utah Utes guard Rollie Worster “lights the U” as players and fans cheer.
Utah Utes guard Rollie Worster (25) “lights the U” as players and fans cheer after the Utes beat Abilene Christian at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. The Utes will face Boston College Saturday in the Sunshine Slam tournament in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Before the University of Utah’s big football game against No. 3 Oregon on Saturday, Runnin’ Utes basketball fans can watch their team play in the Sunshine Slam tournament in Daytona Beach, Florida.

If they are willing to pay for it, that is. The entire tournament will be streamed live at FloHoops.com, a subscription service.

Utah (3-0) opens play at the Ocean Center at 3 p.m. MST against Boston College (3-1) of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Utes’ football game begins at 5:30 p.m. MST, so tailgaters might want to take their laptops to the Rice-Eccles Stadium parking lots.

Winner of the Utah-BC game will meet the winner of the Rhode Island-Tulsa game on Sunday at 5:30 p.m.

Losers will play at 3 p.m. Sunday.

“We are super excited,” Utes coach Craig Smith said regarding his club’s first games away from the Huntsman Center, where the Utes dumped Abilene Christian, Sacramento State and Bethune-Cookman to open the season.

Boston College (3-1) defeated Dartmouth 73-57, Holy Cross 85-55 and Fairfield 72-64 at home to start the season before falling 57-49 at Rhode Island on Wednesday night.

Tulsa is 2-1, having lost to Air Force last Saturday in Oklahoma, while Rhode Island is 3-0.

If Utah defends and rebounds like it did while playing three games in seven days, the Utes could easily be 5-0 when they host BYU on Nov. 27 at the Huntsman Center.

But first things first.

“It will be good playing an ACC opponent,” Smith said. “Obviously, that’s part of the alliance with the Pac-12 and the Big Ten and the ACC. We are looking forward to that next challenge.”

Having yet to look at the team’s itinerary before talking to reporters Wednesday, Smith said he wasn’t aware of any planned excursions to the beach or the world famous Daytona International Speedway. That’s how busy the first-year coach has been, seeing as how he is preparing to face any of three teams that are very different from one another.

There was some question whether freshman guard Gabe Madsen would make the trip, but the Utes posted a picture of the Cincinnati transfer getting ready to board the team bus to the airport Thursday afternoon on social media. Madsen missed the Bethune-Cookman game with a non-COVID-19-related illness and Smith said it would be “a stretch for him to play” in Florida.

Boston College also has a new head coach. Earl Grant was hired away from College of Charleston after seven seasons and is the 13th head coach in BC’s history.

Smith said the Eagles are “big, strong and sturdy,” which one would expect from an ACC team.

“They can throw a little zone at you, but typically they play straight up man-to-man and grind you out and play some long possessions,” he said.

That was true in the loss to Rhode Island. The Eagles made just 14 field goals and shot only 45%. They did outrebound the Rams 45-29, setting up an interesting dual with the Utes because Utah is No. 3 in the country in rebounding margin at 23.7.

Drexel transfer T.J. Bickerstaff scored a career-high 22 points and grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds in the loss. Bickerstaff, a 6-foot-9 junior forward, is averaging 14.3 points and 8.5 boards per game, while DeMarr Langford is scoring 13.5 points per game.

Because the Utes have blown out three overmatched opponents and Smith has gone deep into his bench early and often, it is difficult to predict which guys will get the most playing time now that the level of difficulty kicks up a couple notches.

Junior center Branden Carlson leads the Utes in scoring with a 16.3 average, while fellow starter Marco Anthony is the top rebounder at 10.0 per game, thanks in part to a career-high 17-board outing vs. Sac State.

The rotation “is just something we will continue to work with,” Smith said. “But I do feel like we are starting to get a better feel for what each guy brings to the team.”