What’s next for Runnin’ Utes? Craig Smith has holes to fill, and lots of them
Guards Pelle Larsson and Rylan Jones are the latest Utes to take their games elsewhere, reducing to four the number of scholarship players from last year’s team who will be returning
Add Swedish combo guard Pelle Larsson and local guard Rylan Jones to the ever-growing list of former University of Utah basketball players in 2021.
In what was another wild and crazy weekend of transfer portal transactions for the Utes and new coach Craig Smith, Larsson is not only leaving the program, but joining a heated Pac-12 rival — Arizona — sources confirmed to the Deseret News on Sunday. Jones announced on Twitter Monday that he will be taking his game north to Utah State.
Talk about a double-whammy.
Ever since he took over the job March 26, replacing 10-year coach Larry Krystkowiak, Smith has told anybody willing to listen that he doesn’t want players who are not 100% committed to being there. Larsson and Jones apparently weren’t.
“I just really believe in (Craig Smith) as a coach and a staff, and I feel like the way he wants to run the program is the exact type of program I want to be a part of. So it was really a no-brainer at that point.” — Utah basketball player Riley Battin
It is no surprise that Jones entered the transfer portal and, frankly, he can’t be blamed, even if it took a while. After all, his father, Chris Jones, was part of Krystkowiak’s staff as director of basketball operations and was not retained by Smith. The family had put its heart and soul into the program.
Larsson’s departure is more surprising, and not as easy to defend. Bryan Carlson, father of Utah center Branden Carlson — one of the few players who has never wavered about staying in the program — took to Twitter to express his dismay, saying Larsson leaving “just hurts.”
As of the middle of last week week, the 6-foot-5 playmaker was said to be leaning toward staying. Larsson was Utah’s most productive freshman last season, and that is saying something because the Utes also had high-flying frosh Ian Martinez in the fold. He’s off to Maryland.
Larsson started 18 of 25 games in 2020-21, averaging 8.2 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists. His older brother, 6-foot-8 Vilgot, recently finished a college basketball career at Maine.
Pelle Larsson had much more significant suitors when he put his name in the portal, but asked to not be contacted. ESPN reported Sunday that he only talked to Arizona, Kansas, Stanford and Creighton before deciding on the Wildcats, where former longtime Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd is the new head coach.
Hard. Mikki going pro = ok. Rylan and Ian leaving after dads are out of work = understandable. TA and Plummer leaving = didn’t care/not team players. But Pelle leaving = just hurts.— Bryan Carlson (@BryanCarlson34) May 10, 2021
Lloyd is viewed as an outstanding international recruiter, with close ties to a lot of “handlers” — people who handle the recruitment of top international players such as Larsson. Handlers are like agents, but aren’t supposed to be paid.
For the past few weeks, Smith’s roster appeared to be set at the guard line, but in trouble inside, with size and strength definitely lacking. Now he’s got some gaping holes at point guard — unless USU transfer Rollie Worster can fill the bill.
In essence, Worster and Jones could be trading places. Worster averaged 9.1 points and 3.5 assists playing for Smith in Logan last season.
Jones missed eight games due to a shoulder injury last season and his numbers dropped considerably with less playing time than his freshman season, partially due to the emergence of Larsson. Jones averaged 4.4 points, 4.0 assists and 1.8 rebounds in 17 games.
What’s next for the Utes?
It appears that Smith now has four open scholarships for next season; in addition to Worster, Utah has already signed UNLV’s David Jenkins Jr., Cincinnati’s Gabe Madsen and USU’s Marco Anthony out of the transfer portal.
Only four of the 13 scholarship players who began the 2020-21 season at Utah last December remain in the program, and two of those guys — forward Riley Battin and center Lahat Thioune — entered the portal but returned.
“I just really believe in (Smith) as a coach and a staff, and I feel like the way he wants to run the program is the exact type of program I want to be a part of. So it was really a no-brainer at that point,” Battin told the Deseret News last month.
The two mainstays have been Utah high school basketball products — the aforemenionted Carlson of Bingham and Jaxon Brenchley of Ridgeline in the Cache Valley. Both served missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before enrolling, and Carlson is married.
Walk-ons Harrison Creer (Olympus), Jack Jamele (Palos Verdes, California) and Eli Ballstaedt (Wasatch) also remain on the roster.
Where Utah’s 13 scholarship players
from 2020-21 season have gone
Center Branden Carlson — Still in program
Guard Jaxon Brenchley — Still in program
Forward Riley Battin — Entered transfer portal, then returned
Center Lahat Thioune — Entered transfer portal, then returned
Guard Pelle Larsson — Transferring to Arizona
Forward Timmy Allen — Transferring to Texas
Guard Ian Martinez — Transferring to Maryland
Guard Alfonso Plummer — Transferring to Illinois
Guard Jordan Kellier — Transferring to Sienna
Guard Brendan Wenzel — Transferring to Wyoming
Forward Norbert Thelissen — Transferring to Utah State (signed in 2020, didn’t play due to eligibility issues)
Forward Mikael Jantunen — Turning professional in Europe
Guard Rylan Jones — Entered transfer portal, transferred to Utah State