A little bit of gallows humor is sweeping through the University of Utah men’s basketball team the past few weeks — weeks that have seen the Runnin’ Utes drop four straight Pac-12 games and get swept at home by the Washington schools for the first time since they joined the conference before the 2011-12 season.
And why not?
Adversity, injuries and illnesses have been Utah’s constant companion since the season began back in November. At times, all new coach Craig Smith can do is scratch his bald head and give an uneasy chuckle.
“Tough night for the Utes. Tough weekend for us in a lot of ways, obviously. Really disappointing. You always want to win, of course. Disappointed, but certainly not discouraged. It is definitely hard right now with everything going on.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith after the Runnin’ Utes lost their fourth-straight game
The trend of one bad break after another reached almost laughable proportions Saturday morning as word leaked out that star center Branden Carlson would miss that afternoon’s game against Washington State due to having had an appendicitis attack late Friday night.
Carlson, arguably Utah’s best player, is one of several Utes who have already missed games this season for one reason or another.
“You just feel bad for Branden,” said Smith, who found out about the emergency at 10:15 p.m. Friday night.
“I mean, that guy had an unbelievable summer, and an unbelievable fall, and you saw how well he was playing those first six, seven games or whatever it was. … It is hard on our team. He is a pillar on our team, and a guy everybody looks up to.”
Smith said he doesn’t have a timetable for Carlson’s return. The Utes are scheduled to play at Arizona State on Thursday night.
Without Carlson, the nose-diving Utes were no match for the bigger, more athletic Cougars and fell 77-61 in front of an announced crowd of 7,578 at the Huntsman Center on Saturday.
Tyrell Roberts led five Cougars in double figures with 17 points as WSU won in Salt Lake City for the first (and only) time since a 33-32 win over the Utes on Dec. 14, 1946.
Washington State improved to 1-11 against Utah in the Huntsman Center, and completed the sweep for the Evergreen State schools that Washington started Thursday.
Utah (8-8, 1-5) has lost five of six, while WSU (9-6, 2-2) snapped a two-game losing skid and played like it wants the up-for-grabs title of fourth-best team in the Pac-12 that Utah was seemingly in the running for before heading out to the Pacific Northwest last week and getting swept by the Oregon schools.
“Tough night for the Utes,” Smith said. “Tough weekend for us in a lot of ways, obviously. Really disappointing. You always want to win, of course.
“Disappointed, but certainly not discouraged. It is definitely hard right now with everything going on.”
The Utes led 15-13 seven minutes into the game but played horribly on the defensive end the last 13 minutes of the first half to lose the lead and never led in the second half.
They cut down on turnovers — committing just 12 — but set an unofficial Huntsman Center record for most missed, wide-open, 3-pointers.
Utah finished 5 of 22 from deep, while Wazzu hit five of its first eight 3-point attempts before cooling off considerably and finishing 12 of 30 from beyond the arc.
But the damage was done.
“We missed a lot of clean looks that just didn’t fall,” Smith said. I don’t know that you can say they were rushed. Maybe one or two of them were rushed, but I thought they were wide open, standstill, rim shots that we didn’t make. You gotta be able to make those shots.”
You also gotta be able to stop the pick and roll, a task made harder with Carlson out of the lineup, no doubt.
The Cougars killed the Utes with their pick-and-roll action in the first half and also from the 3-point line.
Forward Mouhamed Gueye, the four-star recruit from Senegal, was particularly effective and picked up 11 points in the first half on 5 of 6 shooting. He had at least three dunks in the first 20 minutes.
“Our help-side defense, we weren’t on our toes, to tag (them),” Smith said. “And layup, layup, layup, dunk. Most of those slightly challenged. It is a little bit of a potpourri that way.
“To get down 10 (was hard). What did they shoot — 62% in that first half? Well, we have all been around the game long enough to know it is hard to beat any team, let alone a good team, doing that.”
The 7-foot Gueye didn’t score in the second half, but other Cougars stepped up, most notably Michael Flowers (12 points) and Andrej Jakimovski (10 points), who hit three 3-pointers, including one just before halftime to give WSU the 10-point cushion.
“I mean, it sucks because of the losing streak we are on now, but at the end of the day, that’s basketball,” said Utah’s Marco Anthony. “I am actually proud of the way we performed (in the second half on defense) and the eliminating turnovers part of it. But I am still disappointed that we lost.”
Utah trailed by as many as 19 points in the second half but cut the deficit to 10 with 7:22 left on an Anthony dunk.
But after going 11 for 11 from the charity stripe in the first half, they missed three straight freebies with less than seven minutes left when they were trying to mount a comeback.
Freshman Gabe Madsen missed a front end, then David Jenkins Jr. stepped in to take two free throws for Lazar Stefanovic, who was hurt, but missed both. It was that kind of day for the Runnin’ Utes.
Stefanovic was popped in the face by Jakimovski, but returned to the game after a bit and was said to be OK by Smith.
“It looks like he was in a 15-round fight,” Smith said. “We put him back into the game and it doesn’t look like it is anything serious, except a good shiner.”
To add more insult to injury, the Cougars’ Noah Williams made the final basket with just one second left on the clock after it appeared the visitors were going to politely run out the clock.
He did have to shoot to beat the shot clock and avoid getting his team’s 13th turnover, but the Utes were just standing around at that point. It was one of those unwritten-rules-of-the-game violations to score there.
“Obviously, they shot a lot lower percentage (in the second half),” said Smith, lamenting how WSU shot 61.5% in the first half to jump out to a 40-30 lead.
And then the little jab, or gallows humor, if you will: “That one at the end made their percentage a little bit higher.”
Did the little bit of gamesmanship bother the Utes, who will play the Cougars in Pullman, Washington, on Jan. 26?
Anthony wasn’t about to play his hand when asked about it.
“You gotta play to the final buzzer,” he said, “and we didn’t do that.”