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‘A totally different team’: New-look Runnin’ Utes say they will be more of a factor in Pac-12 basketball race this season

Center Branden Carlson, versatile wing Marco Anthony represent Utes at Pac-12 men’s basketball media day in San Francisco

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Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) shoots over Washington Huskies forward Nate Roberts (1).

Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) shoots over Washington Huskies forward Nate Roberts (1) during a first-round Pac-12 tournament game at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Wednesday, March 9, 2022.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SAN FRANCISCO — There are a couple of reasons why the players who represented the new-look University of Utah basketball team at the Pac-12 men’s basketball media day Wednesday didn’t have a problem with the Utes being picked to finish 10th in the league for the second-straight year.

For starters, last year’s 11th place finish in still on the minds of center Branden Carlson, wing Marco Anthony and second-year coach Craig Smith.

“Sometimes you need a piece of humble pie and last year we were served a piece of humble pie,” Smith said.

“Sometimes you need a piece of humble pie and last year we were served a piece of humble pie.” — Utah men’s basketball coach Craig Smith.

“It was definitely a tough year for us,” Carlson added.

And Anthony revealed that last year’s team didn’t reach its potential because some players had a sense of entitlement.

“It kind of looked like people were walking around like they were privileged or something like that, like they were going to be able to play (in the Pac-12).”

After winning their first six games, the 2021-22 Utes were hit by the injury and illness bug, lost a school-record 10 straight games midway through the conference season and finished with a forgettable 11-20 record.

Which brings us to another reason for the Utes not putting up a protest over where they are picked. Last year marked the first time the Utes have finished below their predicted finish since they joined the Pac-12 in 2011-12. Utah has done better than its predicted finish every year with the exception of 2015, 2020 and 2021, years they finished exactly where the media said they would.

“We have to earn that respect,” Carlson said, shrugging off the fairly low expectations. “Last year was not the season we were hoping for, and we didn’t end where we wanted. So this year we have to go out and play hard and show that we are better than 10th, for sure.”

Anthony, the fifth-year senior who started his career at Virginia, transferred to Utah State, and then followed Smith to Utah, said the “whole plan” is to prove the doubters wrong and get the Utes back to the NCAA Tournament.

“I mean, of course we see being picked 10th as a sign of disrespect,” Anthony said. “But we also understand it because of how last year ended up. We have to earn respect. Like I always say, we know what we are capable of, so we are just going to go with that.

“We kinda like being the underdogs, because whatever we do is just going to surprise everybody, everybody but ourselves,” he continued. “It is going to be great.”

Echoing what Anthony said about some players not totally bought-in to the team concept last year, Carlson said the Utes will have a different mindset this year off the court and a different look on it, with bigger, stronger and more athletic players up and down the board.

“We are definitely going to be better this year,” Carlson said. “Just the attitude this team has, and the physicality our team plays with (is different), and just how cohesive we are together should lead to more success.

“Just with preseason practices and stuff, you can already see a difference,” he continued. “I think this year is going to be a really big step in the right direction.”

Eight newcomers will join eight returning players on the roster this year, Smith said, adding that the Utes “are definitely more equipped” to make more noise in the league this year than in his first, when he inherited a massive rebuilding project from ousted coach Larry Krystkowiak and may have taken some transfers who didn’t take well to the culture he was trying to build.

“There has been a lot of change in a short amount of time for our program, and our roster. It is a great group. 

“We have an attitude that craves improvement. Then we have a bunch of guys that love the gym. These guys (Carlson and Anthony) can echo that,” he said.

“They love to compete. They don’t just want to play, they want to compete. I think there is a difference in that. We don’t have many guys that are sitting on the fence, that kinda love to play one day or kinda love to compete one day, and then the next day not so much so.”

Carlson and Anthony have set the tone, establishing a “Breakfast Club” for early morning workouts Monday through Friday before their classes begin.

“Just get up 100 or so shots each and kinda working on game-like shots at game speed,” is how Carlson described it. “Just trying to get in that extra work.”

This will definitely be Anthony’s last year of college basketball, as he exhausts his eligibility. Carlson is listed as a senior on Utah’s roster, but technically can return next year because the NCAA has ruled that the 2020-21 season doesn’t count, due to the pandemic.

What is his plan?

“I haven’t decided. I am just taking it as it comes. My goal is to play in the league (NBA), and if after this season that can happen, then that is what it is. But if not, then I will probably be back for one more year,” he said. “I haven’t thought too much about it. I am just kinda worried about the season and performing my best for this team and helping this team have its best season.”

Smith said all three transfers he brought in — Cincinnati’s Mike Saunders, Wisconsin’s Ben Carlson and BYU’s Gavin Baxter — “will make an impact.”

He said Baxter, who had his final season at BYU cut short by an ACL injury, “hopefully will get cleared (medically) to play here very, very soon.”

Carlson said Baxter is already one of the most vocal players on the team, even from the sidelines during practices because he can’t participate in contact drills yet.

“It is almost obnoxious, how much he talks during practices,” Carlson said, laughing.

Smith said what isn’t a laughing matter is how the program finished last year. And he had this message for Utah fans wondering when the glory days will return to the Huntsman Center:

“We know the University of Utah has a rich tradition of excellence. We know last year wasn’t up to that standard,” he said. “We know we have to work our hands to the bone to make it happen.”

And maybe then they will be serving the humble pie.