Craig Smith has moved quickly.
Since agreeing to become the University of Utah’s 16th men’s basketball coach on the last Friday in March by signing a six-year deal worth $12.6 million guaranteed with plenty of other incentives laced in, it appears the 48-year-old Minnesotan has barely slept.
Most notably, Smith has hired two of three assistants that will eventually comprise his coaching staff: Utah State University assistant Eric Peterson and UNLV assistant DeMarlo Slocum. It will probably be another week before Smith, who was USU’s coach the past three seasons, names his third assistant, his director of basketball operations and other support personnel, sources told the Deseret News.
Like Smith, Peterson also has strong Midwestern ties. He is from West Salem, Wisconsin, graduated from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and got his master’s degree in sports management and education from the University of South Dakota. Peterson worked under Smith for four years at South Dakota, followed him to Logan, and is now following him to Salt Lake City.
The father of four is largely credited with discovering Utah State center Neemias Queta out of Portugal. The District VIII Player of the Year and honorable mention All-American announced Monday that he will forgo his senior season and enter the 2021 NBA draft.
Slocum is a familiar name to Ute fans. A Las Vegas native who played two years of college basketball at Dixie State before playing his final two years at Georgia Southern, Slocum was an assistant coach at Colorado State for four years on a staff under head coach Tim Miles that also included Smith.
Slocum left CSU to join Larry Krystkowiak’s staff at Utah in 2011, and was with Krystkowiak for eight seasons before joining UNLV’s staff in 2019.
“I am excited to build our staff,” Smith told Patrick Kinahan of 1280 The Zone in a half-hour interview Wednesday. “We are going to do this thing right. I am looking for coaches who are well-rounded. They gotta be able to recruit. Recruiting is your lifeline. Really good players make coaches look really smart.”
Krystkowiak’s staff included former Westminster head coach Tommy Connor, Andy Hill and Henry Martinez, father of blossoming Utes star Ian Martinez. Chris Jones, father of two-year starting point guard Rylan Jones, was the director of basketball operations.
Hill made a farewell tweet on Tuesday, thanking the Utes for “an amazing experience filled with great joy and lifelong friendships.” A few hours later he announced he will join new New Mexico coach Richard Pitino in Albuquerque with the Lobos.
It is not clear if Connor, Henry Martinez or Chris Jones have interest in remaining at Utah in some capacity. Connor’s name has popped up as a candidate to replace Smith in Logan. Jones also has strong ties to USU, having spent eight seasons as an assistant coach there before joining Krystkowiak’s staff in 2016.
The cases of Martinez and Jones are interesting because their sons are considered valuable members of the Utah team.
“This team already has a good nucleus in place,” Smith said at his introductory news conference last Saturday.
Smith made the rounds earlier this week with various sports talk shows and news outlets, in Utah and South Dakota, and his common theme was on the importance of building relationships with current and former players in Utah’s program.
“We have a format for building our team and what to look for,” he said. “And we have some work to do in that area.”
Utah athletic director Mark Harlan told the Deseret News Monday that when Smith met with the team last Saturday morning, every player was in attendance except a walk-on who was out of town. Smith has since had one-on-one interviews with every player.
At least one player who had entered the NCAA transfer portal before Smith was named head coach, 6-foot-9 junior forward Riley Battin, said on Twitter on Tuesday that he has decided to return. The Utes began individual workouts Wednesday, and Battin “looked really good,” Smith told multiple outlets.
“Bottom line is if guys aren’t bought in, and don’t want to be here, and are not bought in to how we are going to do things and play, then we wish them the best of luck elsewhere,” Smith said. “We have so many great things going on here and we are not going to settle for second best.”
Friday afternoon, the Utes gained a player, but lost one as well. Gabe Madsen, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, announced via Twitter that he will transfer to Utah from Cincinnati. Madsen opted out of the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 after appearing in just two games for the Bearcats.
A top-300 recruit, according to the 247 Sports’ rankings, Madsen has a twin brother, Mason, who is also in the portal. Gabe Madsen was a big-time recruit last year, with offers from Marquette, Minnesota and Iowa. He is from Rochester, Minnesota.
Minutes after Gabe Madsen announced his commitment, however, Holland native Norbert Thelissen was reported to be in the portal. Thelissen, a 6-foot-7 wing, played for the Dutch professional basketball club Heroes Den Bosch the past two seasons and was recruited to Utah by Andy Hill, then the Utes’ international recruiting specialist.
Now, all eyes turn to another Utah player who entered the portal, 6-foot-7 All-Pac-12 performer Timmy Allen. The official Twitter account of the Compton Magic, Allen’s former AAU program, announced the night before Smith was officially named Utah’s new coach that the junior from Mesa, Arizona, was in the portal.
A rising senior, Allen will almost certainly test the NBA draft waters, as he did last year before deciding to return to Utah. He’s been mostly quiet on social media since the Compton Magic tweet, tweeting only a cryptic message saying “the vision is clear” after having met with Smith.
Utah’s second-leading scorer from the 2020-21 season, shooting guard Alfonso Plummer, is moving on. Of the remaining Utes who were part of the 7-8 man rotation, center Branden Carlson and Swedish combo guard Pelle Larsson are the most likely to stay.
the vision is clear— TA (@timmybuckets35) April 1, 2021
Along with talking up his new program to media members, hiring some of his assistant coaches, reaching out to former Utes such as New York Knicks associate head coach Johnnie Bryant and meeting with all the players, Smith has also done some recruiting.
Farmington High guard Collin Chandler reported on Twitter Wednesday night that he received another scholarship offer to join the Utes, after having received one from Krystkowiak in August 2020. A four-star prospect (247sports.com), Chandler also has offers from Dixie State and Stanford.
Under Krystkowiak, Utah has also offered American Fork big man Jaxon Kohler.
I remember committing to the U and how excited I was to play for Coach Krystkowiack. It was a great 2 years playing and learning the game from him. I am grateful for everything you have done for me, our team, and all the time you put in to help us be great. Thank you!— Branden Carlson (@ballerbranden35) March 18, 2021