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Utah basketball: Cal suddenly looks formidable for ailing Utes in Pac-12 home opener

Runnin’ Utes could be down to seven healthy scholarship players if Branden Carlson, Marco Anthony, Gabe Madsen can’t return from ankle injuries and illnesses

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Utah guard Rollie Worster (25) goes to the basket against Southern California guard Boogie Ellis, left, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

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A few weeks ago, Sunday’s hosting of California looked like a bit of a breather for Utah’s basketball team, seeing as how the undefeated-at-the-time Runnin’ Utes would be coming off back-to-back matchups with ranked foes BYU and USC and the Golden Bears were picked to finish last in the Pac-12.

Well, thanks to a rash of injuries suffered by the Utes and Cal’s resurgence as of late after a rocky start, that’s no longer the case.

The Bears, 4-4 and winners of two straight, including a 73-61 victory over Oregon State in their Pac-12 opener the night after Utah was blitzed 93-73 by No. 18 USC, roll into the Huntsman Center fully capable of pulling off an upset.

Tipoff is at 3 p.m. Sunday, and the game will be televised the Pac-12 Networks, with Todd Harris and former Arizona star Matt Muehlebach on the call.

“We are not tremendous athletes in terms of our front court,” Smith said. “Overall, we are not (all that) athletic. It seems like our muscle and some of our athleticism are the guys who are really shelved right now, so some of that stuff gets exposed. ... We gotta be tougher and more disciplined with some of that stuff, and figure it out.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith.

The matinee game on what Utah is calling “Faculty and Staff Appreciation Day” will wrap up the early Pac-12 games for the Utes (5-2, 0-1), who will return to nonconference play with contests against TCU, Manhattan, Missouri and Fresno State before jumping back into Pac-12 action on Dec. 30 at Oregon State.

The Utes are going to have to “maybe reinvent how we are playing a little bit,” coach Craig Smith said after star center Branden Carlson sustained an ankle injury with around 11 minutes remaining in the first half against USC.

Responding to a question on Twitter regarding his son’s health, Bryan Carlson said Branden has “just an ankle sprain” and will be “back soon.”

Whether that means the 7-footer will play against Cal remains to be seen.

Utah is also waiting on starting guard Marco Anthony, its leading rebounder, to return after he suffered an ankle injury in the second half of the 72-58 win over Tulsa on Nov. 21.

Cincinnati transfer Gabe Madsen, one of the best pure shooters on the team, has been out since Nov. 13 with what Utah’s Game Notes says is a “non-COVID related injury.”

Big man Dusan Mahorcic suffered a knee injury in the opening minutes of the 75-64 loss to BYU and was sorely missed in not only that game, but against the Trojans as well as the Utes were outscored 54-26 in the paint and lost the rebounding battle, 51-32.

“We are not tremendous athletes in terms of our front court,” Smith said. “Overall, we are not (all that) athletic. It seems like our muscle and some of our athleticism are the guys who are really shelved right now, so some of that stuff gets exposed.

“So we gotta do different things,” Smith continued. “We gotta be tougher and more disciplined with some of that stuff and figure it out.”

Minnesota transfer Both Gach, who tied a career-high with 28 points against USC, including 24 in the second half when he was practically unguardable, said it is tough seeing the Utes so shorthanded after a fantastic start.

“I see these guys work all offseason to get ready for the season, stuff like that,” Gach said. “To see them get hurt and stuff like that, it sucks. But we just gotta keep moving on, not let that affect us too much and just hope for the best.”

If Carlson, Madsen and Anthony can’t play Sunday, Utah could be down to seven healthy scholarship players against the Bears.

Point guard Rollie Worster said injuries are part of the game and the Utes have the maturity and mental toughness to overcome the setbacks.

“Yeah, I think we are good,” Worster said. “Again, it is terrible to see that, and you hope for the best with injuries. But I think it is a next man up mentality. NBA — next best action — And I think that is what we are going to do moving forward.”

Utah and Cal split a pair of matchups last year, with each team winning on the other’s floor without fans in the stands due to COVID-19.

The Utes won 76-75 at Haas Pavilion, while the Bears overcame a double-digit halftime deficit and surprised the Utes in Salt Lake City, 72-63.

Cal is led by 6-foot-9 forward Andre Kelly, a senior from Stockton, California. He averages 16.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per game and has had four double-doubles in Cal’s first eight games, including three 20-10 games.

Oklahoma and Charlotte transfer Jordan Shepard averages 14.6 points per game, while Grant Anticevich averages 11.6 points and 5.6 rebounds.

It will be just the second true road game of the season for the Bears, who are 6-10 all-time at the Huntsman Center.

Utes, Bears on the air

Utah (5-2, 0-1) vs. California (4-4, 1-0)

Sunday, 3 p.m. MST

At the Jon M. Huntsman Center

TV: Pac-12 Networks

Radio: ESPN 700 AM