Runnin’ Utes’ basketball season starts in four weeks: Are they ready to play now?
Coach Craig Smith loves his team’s depth, physicality and competitiveness as Week 3 of preseason training camp started Monday on the Hill
Four weeks from Monday, the Runnin’ Utes will officially open the second season of the Craig Smith era with a contest against Long Island University in the Huntsman Center.
A couple of Utes said Monday, as Utah started its third week of preseason training camp, that they are ready to play a real game right now, but Smith himself isn’t as sure.
“I feel like we were ready two weeks ago to play a game,” sophomore guard Lazar Stefanovic said. “With how much stuff we put in (throughout the summer) and how much live stuff we did, I think we were more than ready to play a game. We just can’t wait for it.”
“I like where we are at. I feel like we are maybe ahead of pace, compared to most years. And I think that is a direct reflection of (doing) a lot more team stuff this year than we have ever done. So, I like where we are going.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith.
Smith acknowledged the Utes have done more live stuff than usual, in part because he thinks that is the best way to acclimate eight newcomers. But play for keeps right now? Not so fast.
“I like where we are at,” Smith said. “I feel like we are maybe ahead of pace, compared to most years. And I think that is a direct reflection of (doing) a lot more team stuff this year than we have ever done. So, I like where we are going.”
The Utes had 14 available players at Monday’s practice, the 11th practice of camp, which is the most since camp opened. Smith said senior forward Bostyn Holt is out with a “minor injury” and will hopefully be back by the end of this week.
The coach said BYU transfer Gavin Baxter, a walk-on who is recovering from a major ACL injury suffered last fall, could start doing some team work next week.
“Maybe not full contact, but some things is what we are hoping for,” he said of Baxter, who spent time after practice working out one-on-one with new assistant coach Chris Burgess, who was on the staff at BYU the past few years and is obviously familiar with Baxter’s game.
Stefanovic said the Utes are ahead of schedule from last year because they communicate on the floor better, are playing more freely, and making better reads.
“I think we are at a lot deeper stage compared to last year,” he said.
Smith said the Utes aren’t sick of going against each other yet, but they are starting to reach that point. It was reported by watchstadium.com that Utah will host Santa Clara in a “secret scrimmage” on Oct. 22. Utah’s other non-counting game is an exhibition against Westminster on Nov. 2.
Smith can’t confirm that Utah will play Santa Clara, per NCAA rules, but he didn’t refute it, either.
“I know they are good,” he said. “They were really good last year, the last couple of years. … We are excited that we have a very good opponent coming in to the Huntsman, and I think it will be a great test for us.”
Smith said the Utes will go through “a dress rehearsal, so to speak,” before the scrimmage and treat it just as if it was a regular-season game.
“With all of our new guys, and a new coach (Burgess) on our staff, I think that is important,” he said. “… think it is important to go through that whole process and see what that feels like.”
In the last half-hour of Monday’s practice — which media members were allowed to watch — it was difficult to determine any sort of a projected starting five. Guys were shuttled on and off teams with regularity. Freshman big man Keba Keita seemed to get a lot of playing time, and had a couple jaw-dropping dunks without needing much time to gather.
“Far from determined,” Smith said when asked about a starting lineup.
He said it is “truly wide open” and absolutely no jobs have been won.
“We are not afraid to play inexperienced guys if they impact winning the most,” he said.
At the end of each week, Smith asks his staffers if they were playing a game tomorrow to get into the NCAA Tournament, which guys they would start, and which would be the next four guys, and then rank the last five or six.
“From two weeks ago to this week it is so different for a lot of our staff, and there is very little continuity for our whole six staff members, who they would start,” he said. “So it is competitive, and there is depth, and that is exciting.”
Stefanovic said none of the players know, either, which is the way he likes it.
“The way we do it in practice, everybody gets a chance, everybody plays and we all get subbed out,” he said. “Every single player gets a chance to prove himself. No one on the team has a guaranteed spot.”