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Minus their best player for at least one more game, Runnin’ Utes are getting used to dealing with adversity

Utah will host Fresno State in final non-conference game of the season Tuesday afternoon at the Huntsman Center without star center Branden Carlson

SHARE Minus their best player for at least one more game, Runnin’ Utes are getting used to dealing with adversity
Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) goes up for a shot against Brigham Young Cougars forward Gavin Baxter.

Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) drives on Brigham Young Cougars forward Gavin Baxter (51) in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. Carlson will miss the Utes’ game against Fresno State on Tuesday because he’s in health and safety protocol.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The Runnin’ Utes really missed best player Branden Carlson’s presence on the floor in Saturday’s 83-75 loss at Missouri, and the absence of the 7-footer due to health and safety protocols related to the coronavirus (for at least one more game) could get even more pronounced Tuesday when the Fresno State Bulldogs visit the Huntsman Center.

Fresno State features its own outstanding 7-footer, Las Vegas product Orlando Robinson, who is averaging 18.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game for the 9-2 Bulldogs.

Tipoff is at 5 p.m. MST and the 7-4 Utes’ last non-conference game of the season will be televised by the Pac-12 Network. Utah leads the all-time series 11-4, and is 7-1 against FSU in Salt Lake City.

“It probably does help that we have played a full game, almost two full games, without (Branden Carlson). These guys (Fresno State Bulldogs) are going to be a little more traditional than Missouri was.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith.

The Utes are hoping to get Carlson back when they resume Pac-12 play on December 30 at Oregon State. With their best shot blocker and rim protector unavailable against Mizzou, the Utes were forced to play small-ball for much of the game and gave up 27 points to Tigers’ forward Kobe Brown, including 23 in the second half.

“We were playing five guards out there, essentially, most of the night,” Smith told the Deseret News Monday afternoon. “Obviously, we had no answer for the Brown kid. And just our lack of size wore on us, specifically in that second half.”

Utah was also without 6-10 center Dusan Mahorcic, who sustained a knee injury in the BYU game. Smith said Utah’s medical staff has told him they are expecting a mid-January return for the Illinois State transfer, give or take a week in either direction.

“His recovery is going very, very well, and probably better than expected,” Smith said. “He looks awesome. He is not doing anything on the floor yet. But he looks really good.”

The Utes could really use him against an FSU team that prides itself on defense and rebounding. The Bulldogs are allowing just 56 points per game, tied for No. 8 nationally in scoring defense.

Guard Lazar Stefanovic started for the first time in his Utes career against Missouri, while Utah’s only healthy big man taller that 6-8 — 6-10 junior Lahat Thioune — came off the bench and had four points and five rebounds in 14 minutes.

“We are going to need Lahat to play well against Fresno,” Smith said.

And stay out of foul trouble. Or the Utes may have to play small-ball again. Riley Battin fouled out against the Tigers, adding to Utah’s demise down the stretch.

“Our lack of size wore on us, specifically in that second half,” Smith said. “We just have to get better on the defensive end. I think we are making good strides at the offensive end, but just defensively we got to be able to protect the paint somewhat and find a way to end possessions.”

David Jenkins Jr. and Marco Anthony, who had to play center at times, combined for 34 points for the Utes. That Jenkins broke out a mild slump with 18 points on 6 of 10 shooting — including 4 of 7 from 3-point range — was a positive sign for the Utes.

Utah had a short practice Sunday after returning from Missouri and a spirited practice Monday.

“We had an awesome practice today,” Smith said Monday night.

The coach would have liked to have played Fresno State later in the week, but the Bulldogs have a game at Weber State on Thursday.

“It probably does help that we have played a full game, almost two full games, without BC,” he said. “These guys are going to be a little more traditional than Missouri was.”

Fresno State’s two losses were to California, 65-57 in Berkeley, and to red-hot San Francisco 71-63 at USF. It is 3-1 against WCC teams, having knocked off Santa Clara, Pepperdine and San Diego.

When he was at Utah State, Smith faced Fresno State seven times over the course of three seasons.

“Fresno is very good,” he said. “Their record indicates that, and they are going to pose some issues. … The Robinson kid is projected to be a second-round pick (in the NBA draft). He shoots 3s, can drive it with either hand, and is excellent with his back to the basket. So like, you really gotta be on point with how you guard him.”

The first 200 fans in attendance at the late-afternoon game will receive a Utah-centric Christmas ornament. The football team’s Pac-12 championship trophy will be on display and football coach Kyle Whittingham and some players will be in attendance and are expected to address the crowd at halftime.