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‘I want to bring Runnin’ Utes back’: Craig Smith conducts first official practice 6 months after he was hired at Utah

Utah’s season opener is Nov. 9 against Abilene Christian in the Huntsman Center, with BYU visiting on Nov. 27

SHARE ‘I want to bring Runnin’ Utes back’: Craig Smith conducts first official practice 6 months after he was hired at Utah
University of Utah men’s basketball head coach, wearing a black t shirt, Craig Smith walks to an interview

University of Utah men’s basketball head coach Craig Smith walks to an interview with media as the team opens camp with practice inside the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Exactly six months after he was hired to replace Larry Krystkowiak as the University of Utah’s 16th men’s basketball coach, Craig Smith conducted his first official practice of preseason training camp Tuesday afternoon at the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility on campus.

“It has gone by like that,” Smith said, snapping his fingers.

A bunch of new players, including Utah State transfers Marco Anthony and Rollie Worster, Smith’s former players in Logan who traveled 80 miles or so south with the 48-year-old coach, have joined returning scholarship players Lahat Thioune, Jaxon Brenchley, Riley Battin and Branden Carlson in giving the Utes what Smith called “a nice blend” of old and new.

“I want to bring Runnin’ Utes back by sharing the ball, moving the ball, playing together. And then we have to be tough mentally and physically, on both sides of the ball.” — New Utah basketball coach Craig Smith

The players were not made available to the media, but should be next week. Smith opened his media session Tuesday by expressing the entire basketball program’s thoughts and prayers to the family of football player Aaron Lowe, who was murdered early Sunday morning in Salt Lake City.

“It has been a really difficult few days for a lot of people,” Smith said.

Turning his attention to basketball, he said the goal for the season remains the same as he detailed at his introductory news conference on March 28. That is to make the NCAA Tournament and win games there.

“I want to bring Runnin’ Utes back by sharing the ball, moving the ball, playing together,” Smith said, when asked what his first team on the Hill’s identity will be. “And then we have to be tough mentally and physically, on both sides of the ball.”

Smith brought strength coach Logan Ogden “who is from Iowa” with him from Utah State, and said he’s already doing a fantastic job reshaping some of the Utes.

“I think you will see a noticeable difference in a lot of our guys physically,” he said. “They spent a lot of time in the weight room on strength and conditioning.”

Indeed, the 7-foot Carlson, now listed at 216 pounds, has added some definition to his arms, if not much weight to his frame. The junior from South Jordan was also sporting longer locks and a headband Tuesday.

Battin, Thioune and Brenchley also looked sturdier.

“This group, with eight new players in our program and a whole new coaching staff, has really jelled,” Smith said of summer workouts. “We have great chemistry, and chemistry is one of those things that is hard to define, but you know it when you see it.”

Smith says he sees it on a daily basis.

“Guys have genuine care for one another and truly get along in a great fashion, both on the floor and off the floor,” he said.

The roster released Tuesday includes 15 players — 12 scholarship guys and walk-ons Harrison Creer, Jack Jamele and Eli Ballstaedt, all holdovers from the Krystkowiak era. Teams are allowed 13 scholarship players, but Smith said the open scholarship won’t go to a walk-on.

“As of right now, we are going to stay at 12, but you never know how things will work out,” he said.

The coach said all the newcomers have shined at moments, then noted that UNLV transfer David Jenkins Jr. has really come on the past few weeks.

“He is a little bit like ‘The Microwave’ — Vinnie Johnson,” Smith said. “When he makes one — two, three and four are coming quick. He can put the ball in the hole.”

All of the transfers have been cleared by the NCAA to be immediately eligible except Minnesota transfer Both Gach, the former Ute. Because he is a two-time transfer, he had to apply for a waiver that has not been granted yet.

“I have high optimism (it will be granted),” Smith said. “It should happen, without a question. But you just never know until it is done. You just don’t know what that end result is going to be. … We certainly expect it to happen.”

On Sept. 16, Utah announced its nonconference schedule has been solidified “with the option to add an additional nonconference game should it fit in the near future.”

However, Smith said Tuesday that additional game could not be secured. For the first time in his 11 years as a head coach his team won’t be playing its full complement of games.

“Yeah, (scheduling) has been one of the toughest aspects, quite frankly, of the first six months,” he said. “Do I love our schedule? I can’t sit here and say I absolutely love it. … But I still think we have a good blend. I like our (multiteam event) in the Sunshine Slam. I think that will be a good test.”

He also said visits to the Huntsman Center by Abilene Christian for the opener Nov. 9 and BYU on Nov. 27 will be “really, really good.”