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Runnin’ Utes ready to ‘put on a show,’ open Craig Smith era in front of fans in exhibition game Thursday against Westminster

Tipoff is at 6 p.m. at the Huntsman Center and admission is free. Season opener is Tuesday vs. Abilene Christian

Head coach Craig Smith walks from player to player greeting them all 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.
Head coach Craig Smith walks from player to player greeting them all 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

Newcomer Marco Anthony, the transfer from Utah State by way of Virginia, describes the 2021-22 version of the Runnin’ Utes as just a group of guys who have fun playing basketball.

For the better part of six months, those guys have played with and against each other in new coach Craig Smith’s first half-year at the helm.

Thursday night, the Utes finally get their first chance to play against another team and in front of fans. They’ve had one opponent — Wyoming — so far since Smith took over, but that secret scrimmage that the Utes reportedly dominated, by most accounts — was held at an empty Huntsman Center.

Utah welcomes Salt Lake City neighbor Westminster College for an exhibition contest Thursday at 6 p.m. Admission is free, and an autograph session with players will be held after the game.

“Being my first time to experience playing in (the Huntsman Center), I am pretty excited and so are all the other newcomers here,” Anthony said. “We are just ready to come out tomorrow and put on a show.”

Senior forward Riley Battin, one of the few holdovers from the Larry Krystkowiak regime, said that although the Griffins compete at the NCAA Division II level, the Utes are treating the exhibition as an important game.

“We take this seriously, and since this is the start of our season, we want to go out there and be crisp and show everyone we are ready to go this year,” Battin said.

Anthony and Battin also described their team as deep and talented, and eager to show what they can do when the lights are on and some of those red seats are filled with fans.

“I mean, we are on a team that is very deep, so you know we have a lot of guys that can make plays,” Battin said. “Some guys will go off for a week, and then it will be the next guy’s turn. So I think the lineup might be fluid with who gets in and out. I think it will be great. We are a very deep team.”

Media members have only been able to watch a few minutes of practice here and there through preseason training camp, but it appears this is a team that really likes one another, despite having eight new players.

Six are Division I transfers like Anthony and fellow former Aggie Rollie Worster, while Bostyn Holt is a junior college transfer and Lazar Stefanovic is a true freshman.

Battin said another Krystkowiak holdover — center Lahat Thioune — and Anthony have emerged as the players who keep everybody else loose.

“We got a bunch of guys on the team that kind of make it fun and always have a good time out there,” Battin said. “Everyone just likes to go out there and play. It is enjoyable to spend time with these guys.”

Asked what he hopes to accomplish against Westminster, Smith noted the usual benchmarks like playing well, playing together and getting accustomed to playing in front of a crowd.

“Let’s give it a go and see what we got,” he said.

Smith wasn’t ready to tell reporters which guys will start, but he did say that the five who start Thursday won’t necessarily also start next Tuesday when the season begins in earnest against Abilene Christian at the Huntsman Center (6 p.m., Pac-12 Mountain).

“I am not hiding it from you,” he said. “We have had a couple guys beat up. It was good to see everybody practice today. So we have to see where a couple guys are at, quite frankly, in the post-practice (treatment sessions) to see (who is) going to be good to go tomorrow.”

The feeling here is that Anthony, Worster and UNLV transfer David Jenkins Jr. will comprise the starting backcourt and Branden Carlson and Battin will start in the frontcourt — assuming those five are all healthy.

“We will see what happens a week from now (vs. ACU),” Smith said. “I do think we are pretty close in my mind as long as everybody is healthy. But I gotta see where we are at that way.”