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Fresh off Sunshine Slam win, undefeated Runnin’ Utes turn attention to Saturday’s showdown with No. 18 BYU

Utah players aren’t surprised they are off to a 5-0 start, say they will be ready to roll against rival Cougars Saturday at the Huntsman Center

Marco Anthony dribbles the ball during a drill as the University of Utah’s men’s basketball team opens camp with practice inside the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.
Marco Anthony dribbles the ball during a drill as the University of Utah’s men’s basketball team opens camp with practice inside the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Utah’s 5-0 basketball team blew its cover a little bit last weekend, winning the Sunshine Slam with victories over Boston College and Tulsa and serving notice that the Runnin’ Utes could be much better than a lot of preseason prognosticators thought they would be.

But returning players Jaxson Brenchley and Riley Battin aren’t surprised, they said Wednesday afternoon after the Utes practiced for the first time since returning from Florida.

“We prepare to win every game,” Brenchley said. “If we lose, that is not expected. We expect to win. That’s how we roll.”

Added Battin: “I think we grew closer as a team, for sure. It obviously helps to come back with a trophy. We played some really good teams and we were able to bond off the court as well. I think it was all good.”

Having defeated Abilene Christian, Sacramento State, Bethune-Cookman, Boston College and Tulsa by an average of 16.5 points, the Utes turn their attention to easily the most difficult part of their pre-Christmas schedule.

They will host No. 18 BYU — which hosted Texas Southern on Wednesday at the Marriott Center — and then jump into a couple of Pac-12 games, going to USC on Dec. 1 and then hosting Cal on Dec. 5.

Are the Utes getting a jump start on preparing for their bitter rivals? Not really, the players and coach Craig Smith said Wednesday. Reporters were not allowed to watch practice.

“In practice, we are playing like it is a game (in terms of energy expended),” Brenchley said. “I don’t think there is a big difference in terms of rest or rust.”

Battin acknowledged that assessment, saying, “We are practicing today, they are playing today. We will both be ready to go on Saturday … We are going to prepare for them just like we would any other game. Same type of schedule and stuff. Hopefully we will get after it.”

Tipoff is at 7:30 p.m. MT at the Huntsman Center, and the game will be televised by the Pac-12 Networks.

Utah center Branden Carlson was named the tournament’s MVP, while David Jenkins Jr. made the all-tournament team as the Utes won their first multi-team event (MTE) away from the Huntsman Center since winning the Glenn Wilkes Classic at the same venue in 2008.

Smith said getting longer lead-up time to the annual BYU game wasn’t done by design, and doesn’t see it as an advantage for either team. Utah is playing one fewer non-conference game than the NCAA allows, mostly because this coaching staff got a late start on building out the schedule and couldn’t find a suitable opponent.

“We were trying to get a game, either tonight, or there was another window during finals week, early in the week that we could have tried to squeeze one in there,” Smith said. “But maybe with the injuries and all that is going on, maybe it is a blessing in disguise.”

Utah was down to 12 healthy players in Florida, as Cincinnati transfer Gabe Madsen sat out due to illness and junior college transfer Bostyn Holt sustained a season-ending knee injury in practice before the tournament.

“Obviously, we are going to see an uptick in talent level, and teams, of course,” Smith said. “I mean, our next two opponents are top-25 teams. … So maybe it does help because we do have this week to kinda recalibrate maybe, so to speak.”

The Utes will practice earlier than usual Thursday so players can have the afternoon and evening off to celebrate Thanksgiving with their families and friends.

Smith said he was thinking about having a Thanksgiving meal together, but all of the out-of-state players were being taken care of by families of local players such as Brenchley, Carlson and walk-ons Eli Ballstaedt and Harrison Creer.

“And that is super cool that they are able to do that,” he said.