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Utah basketball: Why guard Both Gach did the unthinkable and returned to the Runnin’ Utes after transferring out in 2020

After playing last season at Minnesota, former Runnin’ Utes guard is back at the U. and hoping the NCAA grants him immediate eligibility as a second-time transfer

Utah Utes guard Both Gach gets to the basket for a score.
Utah Utes guard Both Gach (11) gets to the basket for a score during the first round of the Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament game against Oregon State at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Wednesday, March 11, 2020.
Steve Griffin, Deseret News

When he left the University of Utah’s basketball program in May of 2020 to be closer to his family in Minnesota while the coronavirus pandemic was raging throughout the world, 6-foot-6 combo guard Both Gach figured he would never see the place again.

“I was wrong,” he said last week, chuckling. “It’s good to be back.”

In one of the more unusual transfer stories in a year that has included hundreds of them, Gach is back where his college career started.

His journey is somewhat similar to that of former BYU receiver Dylan Collie, who left Provo after a redshirt season to transfer to Hawaii, then returned for his final season of eligibility as a graduate transfer.

The difference is that Gach was a major contributor in the two seasons before he left, having averaged 10.7 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game as a sophomore in 2019-20.

So let’s start from there. Why did he leave?

“When the pandemic thing hit, there were members of my family that had COVID-19, things like that,” he said. “For me, it was pretty much about being closer to them.”

The 180-pound Gach did not leave on good terms. Utah’s coach at the time, Larry Krystkowiak, expressed dismay publicly about how it all went down.

Both grew up in Austin, Minnesota, about 100 miles away from the Gophers’ campus.

Gach was granted immediate eligibility at Minnesota by the NCAA and started the first 16 games of the season for coach Richard Pitino. He came off the bench in the last 13 games for a team that went 14-15 season, and Pitino was subsequently fired.

Although he averaged 6.8 points and 3.7 rebounds in 29 games, Gach joined nine teammates in hitting the portal at season’s end. As for his family, he said they are “doing better” and the time was right to leave the Land of 10,000 Lakes again.

His season in the Big Ten had its ups and downs, he said.

“I learned a lot, being in a different league, being more physical and things like that,” he said. “It was good being back home, like I said. I learned a lot on and off the court as well. It was good for me in different aspects on and off the court.”

Back in Utah, where Utah State coach Craig Smith had replaced the fired Krystkowiak, Gach’s entry into the transfer portal caused a stir at first, but not much action. The new staff, although familiar with Gach — especially former Utes assistant DeMarlo Slocum — took a wait-and-see approach, Gach said.

They eventually got in touch with Gach, learned he was “very interested” in returning to the Hill, and the rest is history.

“I just wanted to go somewhere where the coaching staff was familiar with my game, things like that,” he said. “I had talked to coach Smith before, when I was in high school and he was at (South Dakota) and when I entered the portal the first time and he was at Utah State.”

Gach says a “good number” of schools reached out and “hit me up” about playing for them, but in the end those relationships he had with Smith and Slocum won the day. Of course, reuniting with former teammates Riley Batten, Lahat Thioune, Branden Carlson and Jaxon Brenchley “was also cool,” Gach said.

“Mostly I just wanted the opportunity to win,” he said. “One of my goals is to make the NCAA Tournament, and this year I think we can. And I wanted to be somewhere where I could develop and get better.”

As of July 23, it wasn’t a done deal that Gach would be eligible to play this season. The legislation passed by the NCAA last month allows one-time transfers to be immediately eligible, but Gach is now considered a two-time transfer — even if he’s returning to his first school as a fourth-year senior.

He said Utah’s compliance department was working on it, but his “mindset and attitude” was that he would be eligible to play and he was preparing accordingly.

“We are still working on the process right now, but I feel good about it,” he said. “If you look around at other guys who have transferred to two schools, they already got their waiver and stuff like that. So why not? Why shouldn’t I be treated the same?”

In a school news release after Gach signed the second time, Smith said he expects Gach to make another big impact — just like the first time.

“Obviously, with this being his second stint, Both brings a knowledge of what our Utah brand is all about,” Smith said. “He brings size, length and elite athleticism to our backcourt in addition to his wealth of experience. I’ve recruited Both at each stop and you know what they say, third time’s a charm.”