Runnin’ Utes are struggling, but freshmen Gabe Madsen and Lazar Stefanovic are emerging stars
Young guards have led the Utes in scoring the past two games as Utah’s losing streak has hit eight games for the first time since 2011-12 season
As the losses continue to pile up for the University of Utah’s men’s basketball team in this rebuilding season, a few bright spots have emerged for first-year coach Craig Smith’s Runnin’ Utes.
Namely, the Utes appear to have acquired a couple of outstanding freshmen, guards Lazar Stefanovic and Gabe Madsen.
They’ve led the team in scoring the past two games, with the 6-foot-7 Stefanovic scoring 18 points on 6 of 11 shooting in the 63-58 loss to No. 9 UCLA on Thursday and the 6-6 Madsen scoring a career-high 20 points on 6 of 12 shooting in Saturday’s 79-67 loss to No. 16 USC.
“Our freshmen were dynamite tonight,” Smith said after the Utes almost upset a top-10 UCLA team that went into Boulder on Saturday and downed Colorado 71-65 to improve to 13-2.
Madsen, Smith’s first signee after he replaced Larry Krystkowiak last March, is listed as a sophomore on Utah’s roster. But he will have three seasons of eligibility remaining after this season because last year he played in just two games for Cincinnati before opting out of the COVID-interrupted 2020-21 season.
“If you love the game, you love the grind of it. It is not always going to be easy. But that shows who really wants it. If you love the game, you are going to stick with it, no matter if you are winning or losing. Because we are going to figure it out at some point.” — Utah guard Gabe Madsen
Stefanovic was recruited to Utah by the previous staff out of Belgrade, Serbia, and amazingly stayed with the program after every coach was pushed out or moved on. He’s got the size, ability and talent to be a special player for the Runnin’ Utes, if the staff can keep him around for a few more years. He’s that good.
“I thought our young guys played very, very well,” Smith said. “Our veteran guys need to be better for us if we are going to beat a team (USC) of this caliber.”
The fact that vets such as David Jenkins Jr., Riley Battin and Both Gach struggled in one, or both, of the recent home games is probably a topic for another day. For now, the staff is excited about what the future faces of the program bring to the table.
“Gabe was really good all weekend,” Smith said. “I mean, 6-for-12 from the field (vs. UCLA). He hit some big ones that kinda got us back into it in the first half when we made our big run. The dude just knows how to play.”
Madsen, billed as a sharpshooter out of Rochester, Minnesota, Smith’s home state, has proven to be just that. His start as a Ute was slowed by a collapsed lung, but since returning on Dec. 5 against California he has gradually earned more playing time.
“We have been talking about Gabe for awhile,” Smith said. “We can all kind of see the kind of player that he is and he is going to continue to be.”
Madsen was 7 of 16 from 3-point range against the Bruins and Trojans and is now 18 of 46 from deep on the season for a respectable 39.1% from beyond the arc.
“You know, this is something that I have kind of expected,” Madsen said of his success. “I have put in a lot of work. I have always prided myself on being a gym rat, (the thought that) when opportunity meets preparation.
“I have just increased my confidence, since getting back,” he continued. “ I was out for awhile with that collapsed lung, and was able to be back here and be consistent, and I think it has shown.”
Utah’s best moments against USC came in the latter part of the first half, and Madsen led the way. He made an incredibly difficult fadeaway 3-pointer from the corner to cut USC’s lead to five heading into halftime.
“That (shot) is something I work on,” he said. “I’ve got a buddy that I work out with in the mornings. We try to go as live as possible. … That’s like my favorite shot, so I mean, I work on it a lot. So I kinda expected it to go in.”
Utah (8-12, 1-9) has now lost eight straight games for the first time since the 2011-12 season, when it dropped eight consecutive games two times and finished 6-25 overall in its first year in the Pac-12.
Are the Utes losing hope?
That’s a no, Madsen said, pointing to how hard the Utes competed against the three ranked teams they lost to in an eight-day stretch — Arizona, UCLA and USC. They led Arizona State most of the game last Monday before falling 64-62 in Tempe, Arizona.
“If you love the game, you love the grind of it. It is not always going to be easy,” Madsen said. “But that shows who really wants it. If you love the game, you are going to stick with it, no matter if you are winning or losing. Because we are going to figure it out at some point.”
The Utes play at Washington State (10-7, 3-3) on Wednesday and at Washington on Saturday. Both games will be televised by the Pac-12 Network.
Utes on the air
Utah (8-12, 1-9)
at Washington State (10-7, 3-3)
Wednesday, 8 p.m. MST
At Beasley Coliseum
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700 AM
“We just gotta keep climbing the ladder, keep getting better,” Smith said. “We got two straight road games coming up, so it is certainly not going to get any easier.”
Smith said he is seeing “some good progress” from the newcomers and seldom-used players such as walk-on Eli Ballstaedt and Jaxon Brenchley.
“A guy like Eli comes in, and he plays great,” Smith said. “He only played seven minutes against UCLA, but he played good, and he impacted the game. Tonight (against USC) he impacted the game. I thought he played great. … A guy like Jaxon Brenchley has come in off the bench and he has given us some juice. We just need more of that.”
Smith was dealt a tough hand after the “mass exodus” of players from last year’s 12-13 team (8-11 in Pac-12 play). But one of his first recruits says he’s got the “right type of guys” to get it turned around.
“It is very easy in times like these to separate as a team, and start blaming each other, start blaming the coaches, stuff like that,” Madsen said. “But when you got the right guys, you are going to keep sticking together.”
No matter the length of the losing streak.