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Runnin’ Utes in decent shape heading into holiday break, all things considered

Utah has an 8-4 record and an NET ranking of 75 through 12 games — not bad considering all the injuries and illnesses new coach Craig Smith has had to endure

Utah center Lahat Thioune dribbles around Fresno State’s Braxton Meah at Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, Dec. 21, 2021.
Utah center Lahat Thioune dribbles around Fresno State center Braxton Meah at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021. Thioune has improved immensely under new coach Craig Smith after not seeing much playing time when Larry Krystkowiak was Utah’s coach.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Having wrapped up the nonconference portion of their 2021-22 schedule with a 55-50 win over plucky Fresno State at the Huntsman Center Tuesday night, the Runnin’ Utes scattered throughout the country Wednesday morning to begin their holiday break.

They won’t play again until Dec. 30, as Pac-12 play resumes for them against disappointing Oregon State (3-10) at Gill Coliseum in Corvallis. The Beavers snapped a 10-game losing skid with a 83-61 win over Nicholls State on Tuesday a few hours after the Utes dispatched the visiting Bulldogs.

Barring something unforeseen, Utah (8-4, 1-1) will be as healthy as it has been in weeks when it embarks on the final 18 games of its schedule.

The Utes left Salt Lake City in good spirits, knowing they weathered a storm of injuries and illnesses in relatively decent shape and made plays down the stretch — which hasn’t always been the case this season — to hold off Fresno State and one of the best players in the West, 7-footer Orlando Robinson.

They wouldn’t be in the NCAA Tournament if the season ended today, but their NET ranking jumped from 85 to 75 and the Pac-12 doesn’t appear to be as formidable as it did when the season began. Utah making some noise in the league isn’t out of the question, and a top-five finish might be enough to earn it an at-large berth in the Big Dance, especially after the league did so well in the tournament last spring.

Utah might be the fourth- or fifth-best team in the league right now, despite not having the services of big man Branden Carlson (in COVID-19 protocol) the last two games and Marco Anthony for a three-game stretch in late November and early December when it went 1-2 with double-digit losses to No. 18 BYU and No. 20 USC.

Would the Utes have taken an 8-4 record heading into this nine-day break in their schedule if they had known they would be so shorthanded, particularly in the frontcourt, to this point?

“Obviously, we would have believed that we would have done better,” Anthony said after scoring 11 points and grabbing six rebounds against FSU. “But you just gotta stay in the moment with things. You can’t live in the past, you can’t live in the future. We just gotta take it game by game. I feel like we are starting to realize that and take advantage of it.”

As of Wednesday morning, only 11-0 Arizona (No. 1), 12-0 USC (No. 12), 8-1 UCLA (No. 22) and 8-4 Washington State (No. 50) had a better NET ranking among Pac-12 schools than the Utes, who have shown consistent improvement throughout the early season, especially on defense.

That defense should get a good bump when Carlson returns against the Beavers and fellow big man Dusan Mahorcic, who sustained a knew injury seconds into the 75-64 loss to BYU, returns in January.

“It has just been a flukish year,” coach Craig Smith said Tuesday after the Utes held Fresno State to 33% shooting and handed the Bulldogs only their third loss of the season.

Utah’s offense has been inconsistent at times, but if freshman guard Lazar Stefanovic continues his upward trend and transfer David Jenkins Jr. plays his way out of a mild slump and shows the form he had at UNLV, watch out.

Minnesota transfer Both Gach went scoreless on 0 for 4 shooting in 22 minutes against Fresno State, so he will need to rediscover his mojo as well for the Utes to do some damage in January and February. Utah could also use a little more from Riley Battin, who made a huge 3-pointer with just under six minutes remaining to give the Utes a 46-45 lead Tuesday.

At 6-8, Battin has done yeoman’s work on the defensive end in the absence of Carlson and Mahorcic.

Smith said he likes his team’s grit and determination at this juncture. He’s eager to see what they can do when he’s got a full complement of players at his disposal. Junior college transfer Bostyn Holt’s season-ending knee injury in mid-November thinned an already thin frontcourt, but none of the other injuries or illnesses were season-ending.

“There is something that is exciting about that challenge (of devising game plans shorthanded),” Smith said. “But it is hard enough in the first place to win, and now you are really stacking some things against yourself. … But we clearly got better this week and our guys know that.

“So we are excited just to keep on trucking and hopefully get BC back soon and get Dusan back in mid-January is what they are saying, and maybe even sooner.”

One positive byproduct of the Carlson absence and the Mahorcic injury has been the improvement of big man Lahat Thioune, the junior from Senegal who barely got off the bench when Larry Krystkowiak was coaching the Utes.

Thioune had 10 points and six rebounds in 25 minutes Tuesday.

“I feel like I am getting better,” Thioune said. “There is always room to get better every time I play, and stuff like that. … I feel like I am doing a solid job helping my team win games.”