As one high-profile University of Utah basketball player after another entered the transfer portal in March and April before and after coach Larry Krystkowiak was released of his duties, Utah fans held their collective breath.
“Please don’t let homegrown big man Branden Carlson join them” was the prevailing sentiment on social media websites.
Because the 7-footer has not only made marked improvement in his two seasons on The Hill, he is also the type of player for which the Utes battle instate rivals BYU and Utah State, the type who can reestablish a local player pipeline to the U. if he has success.
In a recent one-on-one telephone interview with the Deseret News, Carlson said that although it “saddened and disappointed” him when Krystkowiak was fired, he never really seriously considered entering the portal, let alone leaving.
So that should come as good news for Ute Nation. The returned missionary who spent two years in Manchester, England, and is the only married player on the team — still — genuinely likes it here.
“It’s a fun place to be,” he said.
Sure, but isn’t the grass always greener on the other side, especially after the coach who recruited you to Utah and promised he would make you a professional baller was removed from the equation?
“I mean, I thought about it. I said, ‘Should I go into the portal and see what my options are, what interest there is? Should I do it before they hire a new coach?’ I had those kinds of thoughts,” Carlson acknowledged. “But I never took it too seriously because I was going to end up at a new program with a new coach no matter what.”
He said it took only a few minutes with new coach Craig Smith and the staff Smith brought in to convince him he had made the right decision.
“Things have changed here so much it feels like a new program, where we are at,” Carlson said. “I trusted our athletic director Mark Harlan to hire a good coach, and he did. I think it is going to be good for me this year at the U. to be coached by these guys. I think it is going to be a good year for the program.”
What about the future?
“I mean, there is no way I am transferring right now,” Carlson said. “I love the coaches and the vision they have for me and for the team.”
Except for the week following the Fourth of July, the Utes have been practicing and working out for eight hours a week since the beginning of June. Carlson, a Bingham High product who is majoring in strategic communications — more of the business side of communicating than the media side — said he has gone full tilt with basketball and schoolwork all summer, aside from a short family vacation to Bear Lake.
Those “crazy days” after the Utes’ season ended in a 91-85 double-overtime loss to USC in the Pac-12 quarterfinals, when Krystkowiak was ousted a few days later, are almost a distant memory now, Carlson said, while pausing to thank the 10-year coach for believing in him.
“I love Coach K and I have nothing but good things to say about him and all of his assistants,” he said. “It is not often you get to play for two awesome coaches at the same Pac-12 school university. … He was a big part of the reason why I came here and that was hard to swallow. But like I said, things are good with the new coaching staff and I am excited to get rolling with that.”
After averaging 7.0 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks as a freshman, Carlson upped his game in 2020-21 as a sophomore, despite the challenges presented by COVID-19 and a “stomach bug” in the middle of the season that caused him to lose significant weight.
He averaged 9.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and had a team-high 42 blocked shots last year. His greatest improvement may have been his outside shooting, as he often stepped outside and canned long-range jumpers. He made 10 3-pointers last season in 20 attempts.
“Overall, I think the season went well for me,” he said. “I had a good start, and then I had a little letdown in the middle, then I got going again after a while. … I was able to gain more confidence and I was able to knock down more shots and get more rebounds, stuff like that.”
Carlson says he didn’t have any coaches reach out to him when the mass exodus of his teammates began — which would have been an NCAA violation — but he did have friends from other schools mention to him that he would be welcome on their teams.
“They would say, ‘Our people would love to have you here,’” Carlson said. “Just some buddies of mine who said they would love to play with me, or their coaches would love to have me. But no coaches called me.”
On the court this season, Carlson doesn’t have a lot of individual goals as far as points and rebounds are concerned.
“I am not a ‘me’ player,” he said. “I only care about what I need to do to help our team win.”
But off the court, he’s got a well-defined goal. He wants to gain about 15 pounds before the season starts in November.
“I lost a little weight during the season (due to the stomach ailment) and I was down to about 205 by the end of the season,” he said. “But I worked my way back up and I am at 218 right now. I am trying to get to 230 before this next season, at least.”
He’s developing great relationships with two coaches Smith brought with him from Utah State, new strength and conditioning coach Logan Ogden and new assistant Eric Peterson, who works with the bigs.
“My body is more sore than it has ever been, but it is working,” he said of his sessions with Ogden. “I am getting bigger and stronger.”
Because he is going to be here for a lot longer. So rest easy, Utah fans.