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Why Runnin’ Utes will be shorthanded for their Pac-12 opener against USC

New Utah coach Craig Smith could have only eight scholarship players at his disposal at the Galen Center against undefeated USC

Utah Utes basketball coach Craig Smith claps during the game against Westminster.
Utah basketball coach Craig Smith claps during game against Westminster at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021. The shorthanded Runnin’ Utes open Pac-12 play Wednesday at No. 18 USC.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

LOS ANGELES — Craig Smith’s Runnin’ Utes probably couldn’t have picked a worse time to open Pac-12 play than this week, but that is the hand the new Utah basketball coach and his team have been dealt, so they have no other choice than to forge ahead and make the most of it.

Because of injuries, Utah (5-1) could have just eight scholarship players available on Wednesday night (9:30 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Network) when it takes on nationally ranked and undefeated USC (6-0) at the Galen Center.

The Trojans are No. 18 in the Coaches Poll and No. 20 in the AP Top 25 poll.

“We went from what I thought was going to be a really deep team to having (a rash of injuries),” Smith said Monday afternoon after practice in Salt Lake City. “It is a good thing we have some depth. We have 11 (healthy) guys in the program.”

Most notably, the Utes could be without starting guard Marco Anthony, backup wing Gabe Madsen and backup big man Dusan Mahorcic against one of the Pac-12’s top three teams. Fifth-ranked UCLA (6-1) and No. 11 Arizona (6-0) are the only Pac-12 teams entering conference play ranked higher than the Trojans.

Madsen (non-COVID-19 illness) and Anthony (ankle) missed Saturday’s 75-64 loss to then No. 18 BYU at the Huntsman Center, while Mahorcic sustained a knee injury seconds after he entered the game.

“Hoping for the best, but you know how that goes,” Smith said of Mahorcic’s injury.

On his radio show on ESPN 700 AM, Smith made it sound as if the Illinois State transfer’s injury is not season-ending.

“It is not enjoyable coaching when you don’t have the whole roster available, but it is part of what is fun about coaching, is you have to reinvent who you are, put the guys in the best position to succeed, which will help our team to succeed,” Smith said.

Asked about Anthony and Madsen on Monday, Smith said they are “both progressing” and Madsen was able to do a few things in practice, while Anthony wasn’t.

“We are going to prepare with the guys that we know we have and then it will be an added bonus if any of these (injured/ill) guys get cleared — hopefully soon,” Smith said.

With Anthony unable to play after suffering the ankle injury in the Sunshine Slam, which Utah won, Minnesota transfer Both Gach started in the USU transfer’s place and struggled in the loss to BYU. Gach went 1 of 8 from the field and had just two rebounds in 34 minutes.

A positive was that freshman guard Lazar Stefanovic had his third straight outstanding game off the bench. Stefanovic was 4 of 5 against Boston College, 5 of 9 against Tulsa and 5 of 9 against BYU, scoring 33 points in his last three games.

The Utes were scheduled to fly to Los Angeles Tuesday afternoon.

“I thought we had a very good practice (Monday),” Smith said. “It was spirited. Our execution was really, really good. I thought our guys were very locked in. We had a long film session where we could really look in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, here are some things we did really well on Saturday, and these are some things we did not do so well.’”

Smith said the film showed that BYU, now ranked No. 12 in the AP survey, “made a lot of big-time plays” against the Utes to pull out the win.

“Whether it was making a shot at the buzzer, or getting a 50-50 ball that they found a way to get, and we didn’t,” he said. “And that’s what championship teams do. They find a way to make those kinds of plays.”

To beat the undefeated Trojans, the Utes will need a better game from second-leading scorer David Jenkins Jr., who was 2 of 9 from the field and didn’t get a rebound. Center Branden Carlson leads Utah in scoring with a 15.7 average, while Jenkins is scoring at a 13.7 clip.

Anthony leads the team in rebounding (8.8 rpg.) and was sorely missed against the Cougars.

Getting Jenkins more and better looks is a priority, Smith said.

“It is a work in progress and certainly a focal point for us,” he said.

USC is coming off an impressive 58-43 win over San Diego State in the championship game of the Paycom Wooden Legacy and was picked to finish sixth in the Pac-12 preseason media poll. The Trojans eliminated the Utes in the conference tournament quarterfinals last spring in Las Vegas before advancing to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament.

Nine guys are back from that squad, but so far Memphis transfer Boogie Ellis leads the Trojans in scoring, averaging 14.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. Chevez Goodwin (13.2 ppg.), Isaiah Mobley (12.2) and Drew Peterson (9.2) also contribute a lot offensively.

Smith said the Utes aren’t wasting any time dwelling on who won’t play for them this week. The focus is on finding the right players and the right combinations to succeed not only Wednesday, but moving forward.

“We have had to do some things a little bit differently today, just because of where we are at with our roster, and that’s OK, because there are a lot of ways to win games in any sport,” Smith said. “We are going to try to put our guys in the best position to succeed with the guys that we know we have.”