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Will Runnin’ Utes tweak starting lineup with Washington schools visiting this week?

Freshman Lazar Stefanovic has been playing well off the bench and could see his playing time increase Thursday against Washington in the Huntsman Center

Utah guard Lazar Stefanovic moves around Fresno State’s Deon Stroud at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City Dec. 21, 2021.
Utah guard Lazar Stefanovic moves around Fresno State’s Deon Stroud at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021. The freshman has been playing well and could crack the starting lineup this week when the Utes take on the Washington schools.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Because of injuries and illnesses, only two players have started in all 14 games for the Runnin’ Utes this season, point guard Rollie Worster and power forward Riley Battin.

Worster came with new coach Craig Smith from Utah State and Battin is a holdover from the Larry Krystkowiak era.

Both mainstays in Smith’s starting lineup struggled a bit in Saturday’s 79-66 loss to Oregon, and on Tuesday the coach acknowledged that he might tinker a bit with his lineups and rotations this weekend when Utah (8-6, 1-3) hosts Washington (5-6, 0-1) on Thursday and Washington State (8-5, 1-1) on Saturday.

Tipoff for Thursday’s Utes-Huskies game is at 7:30 p.m. at the Huntsman Center. The game will be televised by the Pac-12 Network with Todd Harris and Don MacLean on the call.

“Everything is on the table,” Smith said Tuesday when asked by the Deseret News if fans will see a different starting lineup against the struggling Huskies. “At the end of the day, it is about production, and what lineups are best to give ourselves the best chance to succeed.”

After talking about how well freshman guard Lazar Stefanovic has been playing, Smith concluded by saying the Serbian’s minutes will continue to go up.

Does that mean he will supplant Worster in the starting lineup?

“We will see,” Smith said. “We are definitely looking at a lot of different things that way.”

The 6-foot-7 Stefanovic has started in a couple games this season, getting the nod at the wing against Missouri and at the shooting guard spot against Fresno State when usual starting center Branden Carlson was in health and safety protocol and the decision was made to bring second-leading scorer David Jenkins Jr. off the bench.

After the loss to Oregon in which Worster was 1 of 9 from the field and committed five turnovers before fouling out in 33 minutes, when the topic of turnovers came up — Utah committed 35 giveaways on the Oregon road swing — Smith said “we will be putting the ball in (Stefanovic’s) hands a lot more as we keep moving forward through the season.”

Utah’s defense against the Ducks’ supremely talented guards was a bit suspect — Smith even tried a zone on one Oregon possession — although the coach was quick to credit Will Richardson and Jacob Young for making some incredible plays that were almost indefensible.

“Stef is a complete guy, and he is only going to get better on the offensive end,” Smith said. “He has great feel. He can guard the ball, give good help-side defense, get his nose in there and rebound. We are not afraid to put him on anybody on the other team. … He can guard about anybody on the floor.”

Battin has been one of Utah’s most reliable players in 2021, but his production has dropped off a bit lately, in conjunction with his playing time. The senior from Westlake Village, California, went 2 of 6 from the field, including 0 of 4 from 3-point range, in the loss to Oregon and logged just 17 minutes.

It will be interesting to see what happens at the four spot when Illinois State transfer Dusan Mahorcic returns to the lineup. Smith said Mahorcic still isn’t going full tilt since sustaining a knee injury in the Nov. 27 loss to BYU, but is “getting a lot closer” to playing.

“We will see what happens,” Smith said about Mahorcic’s return. “I would be very confident in saying next week he will be back. I think there is a slight chance he will be back this week.”

When asked about the Utes’ offensive identity, Smith said having Carlson back at full strength after COVID-19 caused him to lose some weight and some conditioning, and having Mahorcic back will enable Utah to do some of the things it wants to do at that end of the court.

“Gabe Madsen, I think he will be playing more, too,” Smith said. “He has such a great feel for what is going on, and things are starting to slow down for him as well (as Stefanovic).”

Utah’s offense also bogs down a bit when UNLV transfer Jenkins Jr. struggles, as he did against the Ducks. After putting together perhaps his best game as a Ute against Oregon State — 22 points — Jenkins didn’t score against Oregon and played just 14 minutes while battling foul trouble.

The Utes could use a closer, a Timmy Allen-type scorer who can get to the basket and get fouled in crunch time. Carlson and Jenkins have filled that role at various times, Smith said.

“But yeah, we are still looking for that guy,” he said. “… Usually that has to be, in terms of a guard, a playmaker, a guy who can shoot the 3, a guy that has a good pull-up (jumper), a guy that can get to the rim and get fouled. Or, make the simple play for the next guy. I think we are still searching for that.”

If the first 14 games of the season have taught us anything about the Utes, it is that they play significantly better at home than they do away from the Huntsman Center. They are 6-1 at home, and average just over 75 points a game in the friendly confines. They outscore opponents by 16.3 points at home.

They are 2-5 away from home — both wins were on a neutral court at the Sunshine Slam in Florida — and have been outscored by a margin of 6.6 points.

“Our mentality has been very, very good at home. Hopefully that continues,” Smith said. “But the elite teams take care of business at home, and then just have a road warrior mentality on the road. It is a lot more difficult on the road, for a lot of different reasons. But maturity, toughness, I think shines through, specifically when you get on the road.”