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Help wanted: Craig Smith still searching for playmakers, leaders midway through season

After the Runnin’ Utes blew a 14-point lead Thursday night and lost to lowly Washington, the first-year Utah coach said it is probably time to shrink his rotation

Utah Utes guard Marco Anthony drives on the Washington Huskies in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022.
Utah Utes guard Marco Anthony drives on the Washington Huskies in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022. Anthony says he will take an increased leadership role moving forward after the Utes blew a 14-point second-half lead and fell 74-68 to the Huskies.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Nothing about the first 25 minutes of Utah’s eventual 74-68 loss to the Washington Huskies Thursday night in the Huntsman Center suggested that the Runnin’ Utes were on the verge of a significant meltdown that would result in the most disappointing defeat in nearly a year.

A 10-point underdog, Washington missed its first six shots of the second half, had six empty possessions, and was playing like a team with a probable lame duck coach that would rather be somewhere else.

When point guard Rollie Worster drilled a 3-pointer with 14 minutes and 16 seconds remaining in the game to give the Utes a 50-36 lead, everything seemed to be coming up roses in Utedom. Then the bottom fell out, for whatever reason.

So what happened?

Coach Craig Smith and Utes Lazar Stefanovic and Marco Anthony tried to put a finger on it in their postgame comments. Turnovers, lack of energy and a letdown in defensive focus were mentioned.

“Obviously, (19) turnovers were a major, major issue for us,” Smith said, repeating what he had said last week when the Utes committed 35 combined turnovers in road losses at Oregon State and Oregon.

But those games were against 2021 NCAA Tournament teams, and not in the Huntsman Center against a team that lost on its home court to Utah Valley, Northern Illinois, Winthrop and Wyoming. Washington improved to 6-6 with the win, 1-1 in conference play.

Utah was 6-1 at home, its only loss to then-No. 18 BYU, before Thursday’s debacle.

No question about it, the Utes, 8-7 overall and 1-4 in Pac-12 play, are not in a good spot right now, even as they got back to full strength with the return of 6-foot-10 backup center Dusan Mahorcic on Thursday night.

Smith’s club takes a three-game losing streak into Saturday afternoon’s contest with Washington State (8-6, 1-2) at the Huntsman Center. Tipoff is at 4 p.m. and the game will be televised by the Pac-12 Network.

“Some things just keep repeating themselves (like turnovers and defensive lapses),” Stefanovic said. “Something has to click. Something has to change, and we gotta find a way and it has to happen sooner than later.”

Barring a complete turnaround, Utah’s hopes of making the NCAA Tournament as an at-large entrant, which was its stated goal when the season began, are on life support. The Utes’ NET ranking fell from 97 to 115; Washington State’s NET ranking dropped from 55 to 60 after its 83-78 loss to Colorado.

As of Friday, the Pac-12 was looking like a three-bid league, despite all its Big Dance success last year. Arizona is No. 2, USC is No. 14 and UCLA is No. 22. BYU is at No. 30 and Utah Valley is at No. 77, for what it’s worth.

But those are the least of Smith’s concerns on Saturday.

He spoke Thursday night as if more personnel changes are in order; perhaps the game’s most shocking development was that second-leading scorer David Jenkins Jr. (11.8 ppg) and third-leading scorer Both Gach (11.5 ppg) did not score.

Jenkins, the UNLV transfer who was predicted in this space to lead the team in scoring in 2021-22, played just 17 minutes, while Gach logged just over eight minutes. Gach had been starting, but Smith went with Stefanovic at the shooting guard spot and the Serbian played 30 minutes, scoring 12 points but committing four turnovers.

“We gotta reestablish our identity and who we are,” Smith said. “And honestly, we just gotta settle in on some players and try to (identify) that ‘these are our guys we are going with.’”

Smith’s teams prided themselves on sticky defense when he coached at Utah State the past three years, and they have been reasonably good at defending the 3-point shot. They have been in the top 10 in that category most of the season, but are now at No. 43 in 3-point percentage defense (29.1%) after allowing the Huskies to go 10 for 22 (45.5%) Thursday night.

“We got to be able to defend better than we are,” Smith said. “I don’t know if we are going to be an elite defensive team. Through Game 15, we haven’t been great as a whole, especially since Christmas. But we have to be much better on that end of the floor, and then decide who we need to play.”

At one point in the first half Thursday, Smith made a wholesale change, subbing in five guys, including Mahorcic for the first time since the BYU game. The move worked, as the Utes got back-to-back triples from Stefanovic and Gabe Madsen and surged ahead.

Madsen hit two more 3-pointers before the half was over.

“Obviously, as a head coach and our coaching staff, we got to look in the mirror and decide who can do it at this level, and who can’t, and roll with the guys that can make plays,” Smith said.

He is especially trying to identify guys who can make plays in crunch time, like Timmy Allen would do more often than not before the rising senior decided to bolt for Texas after Larry Krystkowiak was fired last March.

Utah has a lot of good players, but no great ones, no closers. In their three straight Pac-12 losses, they’ve been burned late by Washington’s Terrell Brown Jr., Oregon State’s Jarod Lucas and Oregon’s Will Richardson and Jacob Young.

Could Anthony be that guy, particularly in a leadership role?

“I guess I could do a much better job in doing that and just taking over this team,” he said. “Because … 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.”