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‘We like our team’: Runnin’ Utes almost back to full strength as Pac-12 play resumes

Utah coach Craig Smith is ‘cautiously optimistic’ that the Utes can perform well against the Oregon schools this weekend as star center Branden Carlson returns to the lineup

SHARE ‘We like our team’: Runnin’ Utes almost back to full strength as Pac-12 play resumes
Utah center Branden Carlson will play against Oregon State on Thursday and Oregon on Saturday, coach Craig Smith said.

Utah center Branden Carlson grabs a rebound against BYU in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. Carlson entered health and safety protocol before Christmas but has tested out and will be available this week when the Utes play at Oregon State and Oregon.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

CORVALLIS, Ore. — Fans of University of Utah sports rightfully have most of their attention these days on Pasadena, California, and Saturday’s Rose Bowl showdown with the Ohio State Buckeyes.


Utes on the air

Utah (8-4, 1-1)

vs. Oregon State (2-10, 0-2)

Thursday, 7 p.m. MST

At Gill Coliseum, Corvallis, Oregon

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Radio: ESPN 700 AM

But there are a couple other events that are worth keeping an eye on, including a men’s basketball game at Oregon that will tip off a few hours after the Rose Bowl concludes.

Before that, the Runnin’ Utes will begin Pac-12 play in earnest Thursday, facing the disappointing Oregon State Beavers in Corvallis at 7 p.m. MST in Gill Coliseum.

The Runnin’ Utes are 1-1 in Pac-12 play. They defeated Cal and lost to then-No. 18 USC in early December when the early portion of league play took place. Utah is a respectable 8-4 overall, and will play for the first time since knocking off Fresno State 55-50 on Dec. 21.

The Beavers (0-2, 2-10) were supposed to play Sacramento State on Tuesday, but inclement weather forced that nonconference matchup to be postponed to next Monday.

So Oregon State will be playing for the first time since defeating Nicholls 83-61 on Dec. 21, a win that snapped the Beavers’ 10-game losing skid.

Yes, the team that finished the 2020-21 season with one of the greatest runs in program history — a Pac-12 Tournament title and three NCAA Tournament wins en route to the Elite Eight — and was picked to finish tied for fourth in the league race, is off to a horrendous start.

Oregon (0-2, 7-6) is also failing to reach preseason expectations, but will have a few extra days to prepare for Saturday’s 8:30 p.m. MST tilt with the Utes because the Ducks’ scheduled game against Colorado on Thursday was pushed back to Monday due to COVID-19 issues in CU’s program.

Meanwhile, Utah is eyeing the Pac-12 race with a little more clarity and zeal. Fifth-ranked UCLA (8-1), No. 7 USC (12-0) and No. 9 Arizona (11-1) are clearly the class of the league, but beyond those three there isn’t a squad of which the Utes can’t beat, home or away.

“We are cautiously optimistic. We like our team. We just haven’t been able to throw our whole team out there for quite some time. … It takes awhile to get back in the flow, but certainly we are excited for conference play.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith

“We are cautiously optimistic. We like our team,” first-year coach Craig Smith said Tuesday via Zoom. “We just haven’t been able to throw our whole team out there for quite some time. … It takes awhile to get back in the flow, but certainly we are excited for conference play.”

Utah will almost be back at full strength Thursday. Smith said center Branden Carlson, the Utes’ leading scorer (13.9 ppg.) and second-leading rebounder (6.1 rpg.) practiced Monday and Tuesday after being in health and safety protocol and missing the 83-75 loss to Missouri and the win over Fresno State before Christmas.

“It was crazy having practice (Monday) and actually being able to plan on 13 guys fully participating in practice,” Smith said. “I don’t think that’s been the case in our program since November. It was good to see.”

Smith said center Dusan Mahorcic (knee) could return in a couple of weeks. As dozens and dozens of programs around the country have been forced to go on pause due to COVID-19, the Utes have been relatively fortunate, Smith said.

“I am proud that all of our players and everybody in our program is fully vaccinated and has had one booster (shot),” he said. “Our guys have jumped all in on that thing.”

That’s not a political statement or a shot at anyone else’s program, Smith said, but rather an expression of gratitude to his guys for realizing what the rest of the season can hold if they avoid as many schedule disruptions as they can.

Given how shorthanded they’ve been, the Utes are in a good place. Their NET ranking is 75, and they will have plenty of opportunities to improve on that with a bunch of Quad 1 and Quad 2 contests on the Pac-12 schedule.

“We have been all over the map with our personnel a little bit,” Smith said. “Certainly that happens. But we are in a good spot overall. Certainly we let a couple opportunities kinda slide by the wayside. But I also felt like we grew from those, specifically a couple of those losses. I thought we got better because of it.”

The re-start, of sorts, begins this week with winnable road games that a few months ago didn’t appear to be all that winnable. Credit Smith for blending eight newcomers in with key returners Carlson, Riley Battin, Lahat Thioune and Jaxon Brenchley when acclaimed coaches such as OSU’s Wayne Tinkle and Oregon’s Dana Altman haven’t been as successful under similar circumstances.

“You know, everything we want is still in front of us in every way, shape and form, and that is what is exciting,” Smith said. “We just gotta keep on pushing the issue.”