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Runnin’ Utes’ coach likes where his team is trending

Craig Smith’s shorthanded Utes (6-2) head back out on the road to face 6-1 TCU at the off-campus Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas, on Wednesday

Utah Utes head coach Craig Smith calls a play in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. The Utes hit the road to face the Big 12 TCU on Wednesday.
Utah Utes head coach Craig Smith calls a play in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. BYU won 75-64. The Utes take to the road Wednesday to play the Big 12’s TCU Horned Frogs.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Craig Smith doesn’t want to talk about what could have been if some key players had been available in the 6-2 Runnin’ Utes’ losses to top-25 teams BYU and USC.

The new University of Utah basketball coach is more interested in what the Utes can do in the future, beginning Wednesday night when they meet the Big 12’s TCU Horned Frogs (6-1) at 6 p.m. MST in a quasi-neutral site game at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas.

“I like where we are trending,” Smith said Monday. “But there is no rest for the weary the rest of the way.”

Dickies Arena is only 3.2 miles from TCU’s campus and the venue where the Frogs play their home games, Schollmaier Arena, so they will have a significant home-crowd advantage. The game pitting former Western Athletic Conference rivals can be viewed on the ESPN+ livestream.

For the Utes, who are coming off a Pac-12 split — having erased memories of the 93-73 loss at USC last Wednesday with a gritty 66-58 home win over Cal on Sunday — the nonconference matchup represents a chance to improve their NET ranking and garner some nice momentum before Pac-12 play starts up again after Christmas.

“I was pleased with how we played (against Cal),” Smith said. “I thought we really took a step forward.”

Of course, Smith was thinking the same thing two weeks ago when they were 5-0 and coming off a win in the Sunshine Slam in Daytona Beach, Florida. But guard Marco Anthony’s ankle injury proved to be worse than thought — the Utah State transfer still hasn’t returned — and valuable backup center Dusan Mahorcic left early in the BYU game with a knee injury that will probably sideline him into January.

But the Utes aren’t focusing on the past. Could they have defeated BYU at the Huntsman Center with a healthy Anthony and Mahorcic? Smith refuses to go there, while acknowledging this isn’t how he envisioned his first month going when he took the job.

“You just can’t let your mind go that way,” he said. “We really try, in our program, myself included, to get our players to deal in reality.”

And reality says the Utes could win all four of their next four nonconference games, or lose all four. Upon returning from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, they will play host to Manhattan (6-2) on Saturday before taking a week off to take final exams. They play at Missouri (4-4 before hosting Eastern Illinois Tuesday night) on Dec. 18 and conclude their nonconference slate on Dec. 21 by hosting Fresno State (7-1), a team Cal defeated 65-57 in late November.

Utah checked in at No. 57 in the initial NET rankings and is now at No. 58. TCU debuted at No. 115 and is now at No. 108.

Wednesday’s game will be TCU’s first against a Power Five opponent. Coach Jamie Dixon’s squad fell 85-66 to the WCC’s Santa Clara in the SoCal Challenge last month but recovered with solid wins over Pepperdine, Austin Peay and Oral Roberts.

Kenpom.com has TCU as a 1-point favorite over the Utes.

“We might be slightly better than some teams, and we might be slightly worse than some teams,” Smith said. “But I think a lot of games are going to be 50-50 games, right? So we gotta keep learning on the fly.”

And get this, Runnin’ Utes fans. Smith won’t be sad if rival BYU keeps on winning.

“We felt like all along that maybe there is not a ton of teams on our schedule that have crazy name recognition, but we have a lot of good teams on our schedule that are going to fare well in their respective leagues,” he said. “… So we scheduled right, for the most part, and now we need the teams that we already played to keep doing well, and the teams that we play to do well — except against the Utes.”

One thing the Utes have been doing well recently is taking care of the basketball.

As noted in Utah’s news release prior to the TCU game, the 22 total turnovers committed by the Utes in the last three games is the lowest total in any three-game span in Runnin’ Utes history since the 1996-97 season.

The Utes had nine turnovers against BYU, six against USC (the fewest in a single game since March 9, 2019 against UCLA) and seven against California.

It’s even more impressive given how much Utah’s lineup has changed with the rash of injuries.

“We are throwing guys in different spots with some of the sets, and with some of our schemes defensively there are certain guys you would have never dreamt would have to do (different positions), but have because we are shorthanded, specifically in the front court,” Smith said.

TCU will test the Utes inside, because it is third in offensive rebounds per game (16.4) and 11th in rebounding margin at 11.4. The Utes had issues giving up second-chance points to USC and BYU.

Guard Mike Miles leads the Frogs in scoring at 15.6 per game.

“They are long, they are athletic, and they are quick to the ball,” Smith said. “They are going to be hard-nosed that way. It is going to be hard to get easy baskets. But that is high-major basketball, right?”

For the Utes, Both Gach has been playing well lately, while guard Lazar Stefanovich was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Week for his performances against USC and Cal.