Who will start? Who will score? And could Runnin’ Utes go dancing? There are storylines aplenty
Utah opens the 2021-22 season on Tuesday night against Abilene Christian with plans to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016
Last Thursday’s easy 87-51 exhibition win over Westminster College answered a few questions surrounding the University of Utah’s men’s basketball team in 2021-22, but many concerns and uncertainties still exist as the Craig Smith era begins in earnest Tuesday night against a team that pulled off a shocking first-round win in the NCAA Tournament last spring.
The Runnin’ Utes play host to Southland Conference favorite Abilene Christian at 6 p.m. at the Huntsman Center in a season opener that will be televised by the Pac-12 Networks.
Will the 48-year-old Smith, a bundle of energy and enthusiasm for the game if there ever was one, be able to resuscitate a once-proud program that had grown stagnant under 10-year coach Larry Krystkowiak?
“I will say this: We have gotten a lot better in a short amount of time, and I can’t wait to see where this team goes.” — new Utah basketball coach Craig Smith
That’s the biggest question of all as the Runnin’ Utes play for real for the first time since giving USC all it wanted in a Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal game last March in Las Vegas, a 91-85 double-overtime loss that, less than a week later, would prove to be Krystkowiak’s final game on the Hill.
Since Smith was named the 16th men’s basketball coach in Utah basketball history on March 27, he’s brought in eight new players and a completely new coaching staff, and reconstructed a pretty decent nonconference schedule, all things considered, from scratch while keeping a couple of top-tier contests (BYU and Missouri) on the docket.
The former Mayville State, South Dakota and Utah State head coach has been successful everywhere he’s been, compiling a .676 career winning percentage, and helped the Aggies rise to unprecedented heights in Logan the past three years before landing a coveted Power Five job.
At the Pac-12 media day last month, Smith said his latest rebuilding project is right on track.
“I will say this: We have gotten a lot better in a short amount of time, and I can’t wait to see where this team goes,” he said.
Picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12, which promises to be crazy-difficult after the league’s teams won a conference-record 13 games in the NCAA Tournament last spring and returned a lot of the stars that helped it put four teams in the Sweet 16 and three teams in the Elite Eight, Utah’s goal is to “make the NCAA Tournament and win games while there,” Smith said.
That journey kicks off Tuesday night. College basketball is finally back.
Here are five other storylines to watch as Smith’s first season at Utah unfolds:
1) Who will lead the Utes in scoring?
Four of the Utes’ top five scorers decided to transfer when Krystkowiak was fired, most notably Timmy Allen (Texas), Alfonso Plummer (Illinois) and Pelle Larsson (Arizona). Center Branden Carlson and forward Riley Battin stuck around — Battin after a brief stint in the transfer portal — but neither is a prolific scorer.
UNLV transfer David Jenkins Jr. averaged 14.8 points last year to lead the Rebels in his only season in Sin City, and was a big-time scorer before that at South Dakota State. He’s the most likely candidate to lead the Utes’ offensive attack, at least until the Utes find out whether two-time transfer Both Gach (Utah, Minnesota) will be cleared to play by the NCAA.
Cincinnati transfer Gabe Madsen led the Utes with 16 points against Westminster, while Jenkins had 13.
Smith several times the last month has compared the 6-1 Jenkins to former Detroit Pistons guard Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson for his ability to score points quickly, and in bunches.
“There is a lot of depth in our backcourt,” Smith said. “I can’t even name all the (leading scorer candidates) because it seems like every day there is a different guy that has a really, really good practice.”
Another possibility is senior Marco Anthony, the graduate transfer from Virginia and Utah State who averaged 10 points a game last year for the Aggies. Anthony led the Utes in minutes (23:40) against Westminster, and Smith has a lot of trust and confidence in the mid-range sharpshooter.
2) Can the Utes handle their nonconference schedule?
If they want to get an at-large bid to the Big Dance, the Utes can’t afford to slip up more than once or twice in their 10 nonconference games, beginning Tuesday night against a dangerous ACU club that returns most of its key contributors from a team that upset Texas in the first round last March but lost coach Joe Golding to UTEP.
The Runnin’ Utes will host Sacramento State on Saturday and Bethune-Cookman on Nov. 15 before participating in the Sunshine Slam in Daytona Beach, Florida, against Boston College and either Tulsa or Rhode Island.
A showdown with BYU, picked to finish second in the WCC, on Nov. 27 will be huge as Smith attempts to reenergize a fan base that has lost so much interest the past few years that curtains now shut off the upper bowl at the Huntsman Center.
Games at the Big 12’s TCU (on a neutral court in Fort Worth) and Missouri could also be resumé builders.
“Do I love our schedule? I can’t sit here and say I absolutely love it. It is the first time in my career, 11th as head coach, starting 26th in college basketball, we will not be playing our full complement of games,” Smith said. “I still think we have a good blend. I like our MTE in the Sunshine Slam. I think that will be a good test. … We are going to find out some things right away (vs. Abilene Christian). Of course, playing BYU will be really, really good.”
The Utes will open Pac-12 play on Dec. 1 at USC and then host lowly California on Dec. 5. Their Pac-12 schedule resumes Dec. 30 at Oregon State.
“It is something you want to be a part of, right?” Smith said of the much-improved Pac-12. “Bring on the competition.”
3) Which five players will get the most starts, minutes?
Smith has been unwilling to say much about his rotations, let alone his starting five, but if the rout of Wyoming in a so-called “secret scrimmage” and the smashing of Westminster last Thursday is any indication, the primary starters will be Carlson and Battin inside and Anthony, fellow USU transfer
and Jenkins outside.
Freshmen Lazar Stefanovic and Madsen were the first two off the bench against the Griffins, followed by returnees Lahat Thioune and Jaxon Brenchley. Illinois State transfer Dusan Mahorcic gives the Utes a third center to complement Carlson and Thioune, and a big-bodied bruiser down low.
“I really like our three centers,” Smith said.
Obviously, if the aforementioned Gach is declared eligible, he will certainly move into the rotation, perhaps even as a starter. He’s that versatile, and will give Smith’s club a definite boost on both ends of the court.
Junior college transfer Bostyn Holt played only eight minutes in the blowout of Westminster, but could also work his way into the rotation.
At any rate, Smith has extolled the Utes’ depth since preseason training camp opened in September.
“I won’t have an issue going to just about anybody on the team,” he said. “Now that doesn’t mean we are going to play 13 guys who are going to find their way to play 10 or more minutes. That’s not what I am saying.
“But I do feel a comfort level with every guy that’s been practicing regularly, where, in a certain situation, I wouldn’t have an issue throwing in a specific player depending on, do we need defense, do we need offense?”
4) Who’s going to get the rebounds?
Landing the 6-foot-10, 226-pound Mahorcic out of the transfer portal was huge for Smith, because until then the Utes lacked size inside. Returnees Carlson and Thioune are still on the thin side, and Carlson has been hesitant to mix it up inside, although he’s clearly added some muscle to his 7-foot frame.
At media day, Carlson said he’s put a big emphasis on improving his rebounding prowess, while also trying to get bigger and stronger under the tutelage of new strength and conditioning coach Logan Ogden.
“I really worked hard over the summer on holding my ground more in the post,” Carlson said. “Rebounding, as well, is something I have been focusing on. I need to step up and do better in that area.”
Carlson averaged 9.3 points and 4.6 rebounds per game last season, while averaging 23.0 minutes.
Will Smith play three bigs at once? He might have to if the Utes are getting killed on the glass, as they were at times during Pac-12 play last year.
“I don’t know if we can play all three of those guys — Dusan, Lahat and BC — at the same time, but I do see lineups where we could play big-big, where BC is on the floor with one of those other two guys, or maybe those other two guys together,” Smith said.
5) What will be this team’s identity?
At South Dakota and Utah State, Smith built winning programs with defense, toughness and execution. He says those will be the trademarks of his teams at Utah.
At Utah, where he will have more talent and size with which to work, he would also like to put the Runnin’ back into the Runnin’ Utes.
“Yeah, I want to run,” he said. “This team can run. We have got good speed. Like, we can get out and go, up and down the lineup, and our point guards are really good passers.”
Gach’s return, if it happens, will greatly add to that ability. The former Ute can fly.
Regarding Gach’s situation, Smith said: “You always hope for the best and prepare for the worst, and that’s where we are at.”
At media day, Battin said “solid team chemistry” will also be a big part of the Utes’ identity. He said Smith has emphasized it from the first time he spoke to the players to the last practice of training camp.
“We are guys that really like each other,” Battin said.
Anthony described the roster that includes eight newcomers (counting Gach) as full of a bunch of basketball junkies.
“We are having fun,” he said. “I feel like everybody gets stuck in feeling the pressure on everything. Like, we gotta win, and we gotta win now. But if you have fun with it, it comes. We just like to have fun, playing basketball.”