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Here’s how the struggling Runnin’ Utes will forge ahead without star center Branden Carlson

Bingham High product needed an appendectomy Saturday and will be out two to three weeks, coach Craig Smith said Tuesday as the Runnin’ Utes prepared for No. 6 Arizona

Utah coach Craig Smith, left, speaks next to Riley Battin, middle, and Branden Carlson during Pac-12 media day. Carlson had an appendicitis attack last weekend and will be sidelined for 2-3 weeks, Smith said on Tuesday, January 11, 2022.
Utah Utes coach Craig Smith, left, speaks next to Riley Battin, middle, and Branden Carlson during Pac-12 media day. Carlson had an appendicitis attack last weekend and will be sidelined for 2-3 weeks, Smith said on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022.
Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

Hours before Branden Carlson suffered an appendicitis attack that will sideline the 7-footer for at least a couple of weeks, Utah’s men’s basketball team worked on a lineup with Carlson playing the power forward position and 6-foot-10 Dusan Mahorcic playing the center spot.

The Runnin’ Utes didn’t get to use the scheme against Washington State in the disheartening 77-61 loss last Saturday, however, because Carlson was recovering from an appendectomy he underwent that same day at University Hospital just east of the Huntsman Center.

“Before Branden got sick, and all that stuff, we played together and he played at the four and I played at the five and we just played so phenomenal together,” Mahorcic rued on Wednesday, while discussing how his role will change, and playing time undoubtedly increase, because he, 6-9 Riley Battin and 6-10 Lahat Thioune are now the Utes’ only healthy frontcourt players.

“The feel for the game when you have two bigs who know how to pass and know how to play together, it is just a different type of ball game,” said Mahorcic, who recently returned from a knee dislocation he suffered against BYU on Nov. 27 that caused him to miss the next eight games. “And I was so excited and coach (Craig) Smith was so excited for us to be able to play against (WSU) because they have a lot of bigs on their team.”

Alas, it wasn’t to be. Smith said Tuesday that “it isn’t set in stone,” but the Utes’ medical people are hoping for a two- to three-week recovery period for Carlson, who attended practice Monday, having been driven there by his father, Bryan, because he is on medication and can’t drive yet.

“He watched practice and had (conversations) with teammates after practice,” Smith said. “He was in good spirits, all things considered, and doing very, very well.”

Smith gave the Utes Wednesday off, and the reason why became apparent in the afternoon when the Pac-12 announced that the Utah-Arizona State game that was supposed to be played Thursday but was postponed due to ASU being in health and safety protocols will now be played on Monday in Tempe, Arizona. Tipoff for that game is at 2 p.m. MST and the makeup game will be televised by the Pac-12 Networks.

The struggling Runnin’ Utes (8-8, 1-5), who have lost four straight, will now play three of their next four games against teams ranked in the top 10.

They play at No. 6 Arizona on Saturday at 6 p.m. MST at the McKale Center in Tucson and will stay in the area and face the Sun Devils (5-8, 1-2) in the Monday matinee before returning to Salt Lake City next week to host No. 3 UCLA on Jan. 20 and No. 5 USC on Jan. 22.

Smith was asked Tuesday if there is a silver lining to the ASU postponement because it allows the up-and-down Utes more practice time before they begin the rugged stretch against ranked teams.

“We obviously want to play as many games as we can,” he said. “But I think we always have to look at the positive in everything and I think the positive is we are going to be able to have four days of practice here where we can add some new things and just hone in on some things and just get it down, because clearly we don’t have some things down to a T and I am not sure everybody is executing the way that we need to do to be successful in the Pac-12.”

It would help if the Utes weren’t always having to experiment with different lineups and rotations, Smith acknowledged, but also added a couple times that neither he nor his staff, nor the players, are making excuses for their inconsistent play.

It appears that the togetherness has never wavered.

Mahorcic said when they learned Tuesday night that they wouldn’t be practicing Wednesday, a bunch of players decided to get together for breakfast and went to Eggs in the City, a restaurant that Mahorcic said has an NIL deal with star Utes guard Marco Anthony.

Utah Utes forward Dusan Mahorcic (21) drives against Washington State Cougars center Dishon Jackson (21) during the game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022.
Utah forward Dusan Mahorcic drives against Washington State center Dishon Jackson during the game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. With fellow big man Branden Carlson on the shelf for the next few weeks, the Utes will need Mahorcic to bring his “A Game” to the gym.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“It is easy to be a tight team and have great chemistry and do all that when things are going good,” Smith said. “And so when you lose four in a row, and your record isn’t what you want it to be in league play, that’s when you really find out about your character and your team, and your resiliency, and what you have got in terms of individuals, and what makes them go, and what they are. Their true colors come out during adversity. Right? Just like in all walks of life. So we are going to find out.”

The Utes started the season in decent shape, but Cincinnati transfer Gabe Madsen suffered a punctured lung after the opener and missed a month of games. Then junior college transfer Bostyn Holt, a 6-6 forward who was going to give the Utes four solid frontcourt players, tore his ACL before the Utes departed for the Sunshine Slam in Florida, which they won anyway.

Leading rebounder Anthony, Mahorcic and Carlson have missed multiple games as well.

“It’s been one thing after another,” Mahorcic said.

Smith is contemplating playing Mahorcic and Thione together, but worries about turnovers becoming even more of an issue than they’ve been lately, and also wonders aloud if either of those guys can guard an opponent’s four man.

Anthony and 6-5 Jaxon Brenchley have played the four at times as well.

“We gotta get Dusan back up to speed,” Smith said. “I thought he had some good moments the other night. I thought he was very good in practice yesterday. I anticipate the more he plays the better he is going to be.”

Mahorcic averaged 9.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game for Illinois State last year and had offers from 10 or more major programs, including BYU, before narrowing his choices to Clemson, Texas and Utah before eventually choosing the Utes because of his relationship with Smith and assistant Eric Peterson.

He was playing well before he got hurt, Smith said.

“Even though he was playing only 13 or 14 minutes a game, he was playing at a high level. And you could just see his confidence gaining, and hopefully he can get that back, because Dusan can be a good player for us.”

Smith went into the season with an open scholarship, but decided not to use it. Obviously, all the injuries and illnesses, especially in the frontcourt, have called into question that decision. But the coach said he doesn’t regret it.

“Yeah, hindsight is 20-20,” he said. “I know what we were thinking on that. We were open to using that 13th scholarship. It just got to a point where we were not just going to take a guy to take a guy. …

“I don’t regret it. I think it helps us moving forward for our long-term future.”