Most losing college basketball teams that have dropped 11 of last 12 games would probably welcome a weeklong break to a challenging and grueling season right now.
Utes on the air
Utah (9-15, 2-12)
at Colorado (14-9, 6-7)
Saturday, 6 p.m. MST
At the CU Events Center
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700 AM
But these Runnin’ Utes aren’t the typical sub-.500 team, they’ve said again and again this year in rolling out to a 9-15 overall record, 2-12 in the top-heavy Pac-12. Having rested and regrouped since losing 80-77 to Oregon last Saturday, the Utes return to the court Saturday to face one of two Pac-12 teams they haven’t faced this year, the Colorado Buffaloes. Utah has also yet to play Stanford.
Colorado (14-9, 6-7) also hasn’t played since snapping a three-game losing skid with an 86-63 win over Oregon State last Saturday. Tipoff is at 6 p.m. MST at CU Events Center in Boulder and the matchup will be televised by the Pac-12 Networks.
“I wish we were just continually playing, quite frankly,” Utah coach Craig Smith said Tuesday, lamenting the midweek bye because the Utes, despite what their record says, have actually been playing fairly well lately.
“I think for us, we are in a great place. Obviously we had a rough month in January, but we had a bounce-back win against Oregon State (84-59 last Thursday), which was huge for us.” — Utah guard Rollie Worster
Point guard Rollie Worster, who followed Smith from Utah State to Utah, seconded that sentiment.
“I think for us, we are in a great place. Obviously we had a rough month in January, but we had a bounce-back win against Oregon State (84-59 last Thursday), which was huge for us,” Worster said.
Nobody is flat-out saying it, but Utah seemed to turn a corner of some sort when backup center Dusan Mahorcic was suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules after the 71-54 loss to Washington State on Jan. 26.
“Camaraderie-wise, on the court, and off the court, I think we are gelling really well together,” Worster said. “And if we can continue that, hopefully we can go on a run and have some momentum going into March and later on this year.”
Beating the Buffs, who are in eighth place in the league standings, would be a good place to start because the Utes play at Stanford and Cal next week. Utah hasn’t won a Pac-12 road game since downing Cal 76-75 on Feb. 11, 2021.
Having played the entire 2020-21 season in empty arenas due to COVID-19 restrictions, Utah hasn’t won a Pac-12 road game in front of a large crowd since a 92-79 win at Washington State on Feb. 23, 2019.
“You just gotta keep building, keep getting better, and that’s what we have been trying to emphasize with our team,” Smith said, acknowledging that it is Pac-12 tournament championship or bust for the Utes’ NCAA Tournament hopes. “We just concentrate on being our best today. … Not to sound like a broken record, but let’s get every guy ready and playing better. That’s our goal.”
“We just concentrate on being our best today. … Not to sound like a broken record, but let’s get every guy ready and playing better. That’s our goal.” — Utah coach Craig Smith
Does the situation they are in allow the Utes to play free and easy knowing that improvement and momentum are as important as wins and losses?
“I think that is kinda what we have been trying to do all year,” Worster said. “For sure, though, going into this late stretch, we don’t really have anything to lose, and we can come out and play hard and let the chips fall where they may.”
Utah State transfers Marco Anthony (28.8 minutes per game) and Worster (28.4) are logging the most playing time on the team, but Worster said they are holding up well.
“I feel great. And having this long week going into Colorado will be nice for all of us to get healthy and be ready to go,” he said.
Utah hits this three-game road swing in good shape health-wise, Smith said. They lost junior college transfer Bostyn Holt to a season-ending knee injury after three games and have been without freshman Gabe Madsen, Anthony, center Branden Carlson and Mahorcic for various stretches, but somehow managed to stay positive even as the losses piled up.
Smith said after the loss to Oregon that something special is brewing with this group, and Worster concurred.
“I think we can all feel it as a team,” Worster said. “In just these last couple of games especially, the way we have been fighting, and just continuing to play hard through the ups and the downs, I think just shows where we are at and where we want our program to go.”
Smith said Worster is an example of a player who continues to get better; Madsen and fellow freshman Lazar Stefanovic fall into that category as well.
“Rollie had a great weekend,” Smith said. “He had 12 assists to one turnover in the (last) two games, in addition to guarding the second-best perimeter player. I think you can see the improvement in a lot of different guys, and that is what we are trying to focus on, is getting every guy better, which will get our team better.”
Meanwhile, veterans such as Both Gach, David Jenkins Jr. and Riley Battin have been inconsistent at times. If those three can get it going on a regular basis, the young guys can continue to contribute, and Carlson can maintain his averages of 13.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, the Utes might be able to play the spoiler role down the stretch, starting Saturday in Boulder.
“I just know it is going to be a battle,” Smith said. “When I was an assistant at Colorado State we would play Colorado and (coach) Tad Boyle’s teams are really hard-nosed and really disciplined, and they are going to make you work for everything.”