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Problem-solving Runnin’ Utes welcome Manhattan for Saturday matinee

Utah (6-3) is slowly getting healthier but faces a tough challenge from the Jaspers, who coach Craig Smith expects to ‘throw the kitchen sink’ at the home team

Utah guard David Jenkins Jr. shoots past California forward Kuany Kuany and Lars Thiemann.
Utah guard David Jenkins Jr. (1) shoots past California forward Kuany Kuany, left, and Lars Thiemann during an NCAA game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021.
Shafkat Anowar, Deseret News

Along with plugging in players the last couple of weeks due to some untimely injuries, Utah Runnin’ Utes coach Craig Smith has had to plug holes in the dike, so to speak, as the Utes solve some problems and then see others arise.

For instance, the Utah’s shot selection, defense and rebounding were all above average when they got off to a 5-0 start, but turnovers were a bit of a concern.

They got the turnover bug solved — they’re among the best teams in the country in taking care of the basketball now — but recently shot selection has been slipping.

“We gotta adapt and adjust and hopefully it will be good next week to get more practice time and get guys on the same page and more assimilated,” Smith said Friday afternoon.

Before then, though, the Runnin’ Utes (6-3) have to deal with an opponent they’ve never faced before when they play host to Manhattan (6-2) at 3 p.m. Saturday in the Huntsman Center.

The matinee affair marks the one-third point of the season for the Runnin’ Utes, who lost 76-62 to TCU on Wednesday night in Fort Worth partly because they shot 33.9% from the field, including 15% from 3-point range.

“For the most part, I think this team has been pretty good,” Smith said. “I do think we settle at times for the easy thing, instead of the (better shot). We get a good shot, but is it a great shot? I think sometimes we settle a bit and don’t get downhill.”

The Utes got leading rebounder Marco Anthony back against TCU — the USU transfer played 26 minutes, the fifth-most on the team — and he should be available for even more against the Jaspers, Smith said.

The next player the Runnin’ Utes need to get healthy is Illinois State transfer Dusan Mahorcic, who sustained a knee injury 33 seconds into the BYU game.

Smith said Mahorcic did not suffer any structural damage and should be back some time in January.

“He is moving great. He made the trip with us to TCU. He is walking very, very well. He has been super aggressive with his rehab, and he looks really good,” Smith said. “He is not running or doing things like that, but he is moving super well … and so I think I am confident on that (timetable).”

Manhattan presents a challenge for the still-shorthanded Utes, Smith said.

How did the Jaspers get on the schedule?

Smith said the Utes were looking for a neutral floor game on Dec. 11, but that couldn’t be arranged and so they put the word out that they were looking for a team to come to the Huntsman Center, and Manhattan happened to be available.

“There is no connection in any way, shape or form that I know of,” he said. “… But let me tell you, they are one of the most difficult preps that you can find, so it is going to be a battle for us. Obviously, they are a good team.”

Smith said Manhattan is tough to prepare for because they are talented, experienced (nine seniors on the roster) and play all sorts of different defenses.

“We are going to see it all,” he said. “We are ready for everything. … They can put a lot of pressure on you. They can throw the kitchen sink at you. They can make the game chaotic and frenetic.”

Steve Masiello, in his 11th year, brings a team into the Huntsman Center that is 1-1 in MAAC play, having defeated Sienna 77-72 in overtime on the road and lost to Quinnipiac 90-73 at home in New York City.

Guard Jose Perez leads Manhattan in scoring (13.4 ppg.) and assists (6.1) and is the player who has the ball in his hands when the shot clock is winding down.

Ant Nelson, Elijah Buchanan and Samir Stewart are also strong players.

“It is Game 10, you are a third of the way done with the regular season, so at this point our guys should be prepared for anything that they throw our way,” Smith said. “It going to be a very difficult game, but I know that our guys are excited to play.”

After Saturday, the Utes will take some time off to take final exams and get back on the court on Dec. 18 in a road game at the SEC’s Missouri.