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Finals week has Runnin’ Utes prepping for big test in SEC country

Utah hits the road for a tough challenge at Missouri on Saturday

Utah Utes coach Craig Smith calls players in for a timeout during game against the Sacramento State in Salt Lake City.
Utah Utes coach Craig Smith calls players in for a timeout during the game against the Sacramento State at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021. The Utes have a date with Missouri on Saturday in SEC country.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

It’s finals week at the University of Utah, and the Runnin’ Utes have a test Saturday that has likely kept players and coaches up at night.

The first question of this special test? How to win on the road?

Saturday’s game at Missouri is a unique opportunity for the Utes. Even though they have a 7-3 record this season, they have played just two games on their opponent’s home court — and those games resulted in 20- and 14-point losses.

Utah coach Craig Smith may be too old to worry about studying textbooks, unless it’s psychology, but there stands a chance the Utes will be graded by how well they fare against the Tigers on Saturday afternoon, and then back at the Huntsman Center against Fresno State Dec. 21.

“It’s so crazy,” Smith said. “You play three games in seven days and then don’t have a game for eight days. On Tuesday, we had a spirited practice and we’re trying to get our synergy back on offense. We have some things to keep sharpening up.”

The Utes’ last game was a 96-62 win over Manhattan on Dec. 11. Since then, the players have been studying, taking exams and mixing it up with occasional practices. They’re also trying to get healthy. At one point this month, they were down to seven scholarship players available.

Only five players on the 14-man roster have played in every game. Center Branden Carlson has been battling an injury but leads the team in scoring at 13.9 points per game, followed by Both Gach (13.2) and David Jenkins (11.8). Rollie Worster is at 8.0 ppg and is the team’s assists and steals leader.

As a team, another impressive statistics is the Utes’ 79.7% free-throw shooting accuracy, but Smith is aware those facts and his club’s youth and depth will be tested starting at 2:30 p.m. MST at Missouri.

“This is Year 5 for (Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin) and they’ve been to two NCAA tournaments,” Smith said. “They have eight or nine new guys in the program, and that might be the new norm. They’re trying to figure who they are.”

The Tigers (5-5) do not yet have a signature win over a tough team and have a tougher road ahead. In fact, they were blown out earlier this week at former league rival Kansas, 102-65. After playing Utah, the Tigers take on Illinois and then start their SEC schedule at Kentucky’s Rupp Arena.

“With coach Martin teams, they’re going to compete like crazy,” Smith said. “They are long and athletic and cover ground quickly. They have a lot of guys who can drive and create opportunities to get to the rack.”

Missouri is led by 6-foot-8, 250-pound forward Kobe Brown, who averages 13.8 points and 9.4 rebounds. Amari Davis chips in 10.6 ppg and five other players each contribute 7-10 points per game.

“We’re going to play an SEC program and see what we’ve got,” he added. “There’s excitement when you have a week to prepare and we’ve seen progress.”

Smith is also anxious to see how Jenkins adjusts. The Utes’ top 3-point shooting threat was replaced by Marco Anthony in the starting lineup against Manhattan and had six points in 14 minutes, but the team roared to one of its easiest wins of the season. Smith said the move was more of a way to increase team chemistry.

“Those conversations are not enjoyable. Nothing is final for our team and for him,” Smith said. “He’s just got to keep working hard and he’s handled it like a pro. There’s going to be lots of ups and downs during the course of the season.”