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Who will emerge as Runnin’ Utes’ emotional leader against trio of top-10 teams?

Struggling Utah begins a four-games-in-eight-days stretch Saturday at No. 6 Arizona, which features former Utes guard Pelle Larsson and a Pac-12 player of the year candidate in Bennedict Mathurin

Utah Utes guard Marco Anthony goes for a shot against the Washington Huskies in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022.
Utah Utes guard Marco Anthony goes for a shot against the Washington Huskies in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022. Anthony and the Utes play at No. 6 Arizona on Saturday in Tucson.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Much has been made lately of the notion that the University of Utah’s men’s basketball team needs a closer, a go-to guy to step up in the absence of leading scorer Branden Carlson, the 7-footer who is out for a couple of weeks while recovering from an appendectomy on Jan. 8.

It is also apparent, at least from this angle, that the Runnin’ Utes (8-8, 1-5), who have lost four straight Pac-12 games, need an on-the-floor leader, a fiery type who can rally the troops, keep the struggling team from splintering and be that calming and confident voice in the locker room.

Lest anyone forget, it is a team with eight newcomers and a new coaching staff that has been beset with a freakishly high number of injuries and illnesses, the latest being Carlson’s.

After the Utes blew a 14-point lead and lost 74-68 to Washington, a loss followed by a 77-61 setback to Washington State, versatile wing Marco Anthony suggested he’s a candidate to take on that role now that he’s back from an ankle injury that caused him to miss three games in late November and early December.

“I guess I could do a much better job in doing that and just taking over this team,” Anthony said. “I have been on a national championship team (at Virginia). I have been on an NCAA Tournament team at Utah State, and on one that understands what it takes to get there, so maybe it is me. I just need to lead more and do more, at the end of the day.”

As it is, Anthony leads the Utes in rebounding (7.7 per game) and is fourth in scoring (9.0). He’s one of the squad’s better on-ball defenders, perhaps the best.

To get the season turned around, “it has to be something where everybody is locked in, everybody is all in and we are all reaching that one common goal, and that is to win,” Anthony said. “Right now, I think we say that we are trying to do that, but the actions aren’t showing it.”

Anthony’s leadership, and total buy-in from the other guys, will be sorely needed as Utah begins a rugged stretch Saturday that will have it playing four games in the next eight days, barring postponements due to health and safety protocols (COVID-19 pauses).

Three of those games are against teams currently ranked No. 3 (UCLA), No. 5 (USC) and No. 6 (Arizona) in The Associated Press Top 25, although UCLA lost 84-81 in overtime to Oregon Thursday night at empty Pauley Pavilion and will likely drop when the new rankings come out early next week.

Arizona, which has a NET ranking of No. 2 and a Kenpom.com ranking of No. 6, crushed Colorado 76-55 Thursday and hosts the slumping Utes Saturday at 6 p.m. MST at McKale Center in Tucson.

The Wildcats (13-1, 3-0) are the biggest surprise in the Pac-12 under new coach Tommy Lloyd, the former longtime Gonzaga assistant.

Utah, which is No. 128 in the NET rankings and No. 114 in Kenpom.com, will play at Arizona State on Monday afternoon in a makeup game before hosting UCLA at the Huntsman Center on Thursday and USC two days later.

On paper, Saturday’s matchup looks like a mismatch. Arizona is outscoring opponents by a 24.5-point margin and outrebounding them by a 10.6 margin.

“Sometimes when you play an elite offensive team they are maybe not as good defensively, or you are facing an elite defensive team, maybe they are not as high-powered,” Utah coach Craig Smith said. “They are really good at both. … When you are ranked that high, there is a reason.”

Bennedict Mathurin, an early candidate for Pac-12 player of the year, is averaging 18.5 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, while shooting 50.8% from the floor. Azloulas Tubelis chips in 14.7 points and 6.3 rebounds.

Sophomore guard Pelle Larsson, who played his freshman season at Utah last year before the mass exodus when Larry Krystkowiak was fired, is averaging 6.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists in about 18.2 minutes per game.

If there’s a positive for the Utes, it is that they have had a few more days to prepare for the Wildcats when Thursday’s scheduled game against ASU was postponed last Tuesday.

Utah defeated Arizona 73-58 last February at the Huntsman Center, but that result will mean nothing Saturday because the only Utes who played in that game who are available this time are Riley Battin (10 points) and Lahat Thioune (two points).

Coincidentally, Larsson was Utah’s second-leading scorer in that game, with 14 points, four assists and three rebounds. Timmy Allen led the Utes that day with 18 points.

Arizona guard Pelle Larsson during game against Northern Colorado, Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021, in Tucson, Ariz. Larsson played his freshman season with the Utes.
Rick Scuteri, Associated Press

Allen’s now at Texas, and his leadership is missed as much as anything.

Anthony is not the prolific scorer that Allen is, but he is better in other areas, and seems to have the respect of his teammates.

“Marco has been a vocal leader from the get-go, and a guy that I think most guys look up to, and look to (for inspiration),” Smith said. “He’s a guy that understands winning, whether it is two years at Virginia, and winning a national championship, or the two years at Utah State. … So I would say he has been the consistent voice.”

Smith said the Utes are “a little bit of a quiet team, in some respects,” and one of the drawbacks to that is they don’t communicate on the floor as well as they probably should.

“That’s part of the transition,” Smith said. “It is going to take all of us to be on board and be all-in when the going gets tough.”

And right now, the going is very, very tough.