As painful losses pile up for young Runnin’ Utes, prospects for future remain bright
Coach Craig Smith started two freshmen and a sophomore and rode them to the bitter end in 81-76 loss at Colorado on Saturday night
One night they are getting dominated in the paint. The next time out they commit too many turnovers. Then they either don’t get to the free-throw line enough, or don’t make the freebies when they get them.
Welcome to the Runnin’ Utes’ disappointing season of close calls, a season in which they’ve shown signs of being a decent, mid-level Pac-12 team in most aspects of the game, but faltered in one particular area just enough to drop 12 of their last 13 contests.
Such was the case again Saturday night, as Utah went 10 of 19 from the free-throw line in an 81-76 loss to Colorado.
“We have a resilient group. We have a tough group, a tough group mentally, a tough group physically. ... You know, we are still learning how to win. Our guys have had a tremendous attitude, but we are still learning how to win.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith.
Utah (9-16, 2-13) fell from No. 6 to No. 10 in the country in free-throw percentage, and is now sitting at 78.5% for the season. What was a strength most of the year became a weakness at CU Events Center.
Had a couple more free throws dropped in last week’s 80-77 loss to Oregon or on Saturday in Boulder, the Utes might be talking about a three-game winning streak heading into its trip to the Bay Area this week.
Woulda, coulda, shoulda is part of the story this year for the Utes, who will be a force to be reckoned with next season if first-year coach Craig Smith can keep most of the band together.
“I don’t think it is really one thing specifically that is (hurting us),” junior center Branden Carlson said after scoring a career-high 25 points against the Buffaloes. “We just need to get everything we have been doing well, and just put it all together.”
Both Carlson and Smith hinted that they weren’t too happy with the free-throw disparity — Colorado shot 15 more freebies in the second half than the Utes — but that’s probably a topic for another day.
After giving up 21 points to Carlson in the first half, the Buffs bumped him around considerably in the last 20 minutes, a stretch that never saw him visit the free-throw line.
“In the second half, yeah, I just think I might have been running out of gas at the end,” said Carlson, who played 34 minutes. “I just didn’t go up as strong as I should have.”
Backup center Lahat Thioune didn’t play, as Smith rode his starting five most of the game. When substitutes did get in, they didn’t do much — which is also unlike the Utes this year, Smith noted.
“We needed more (from the bench) tonight, no question,” Smith said. “Our bench has been very, very good. You look at every game, and it is usually (good production) from our bench.
“Tonight just wasn’t as consistent. That has always been a big part of how we play. We are going to depend on our bench to help us.”
David Jenkins Jr. had just three points on 1 of 5 shooting in 12 minutes, and Both Gach went 0 for 3 in 17 minutes. Another veteran, Riley Battin, logged just six minutes and didn’t attempt a shot.
Smith is clearly building for the future.
The bright side is that young guys such as Rollie Worster, Lazar Stefanovic and Gabe Madsen are playing together a lot and getting valuable minutes that should pay dividends at the Pac-12 tournament, or next season.
Smith wouldn’t provide a definitive answer last Tuesday when he was asked how many scholarships will be open next year, but the dismissal of backup center Dusan Mahorcic means there will be at least one.
Certainly, some players will jump into the transfer portal — probably those whose minutes have diminished as season has worn on.
That stated, Smith continues to do a remarkable job of keeping the players’ spirits high, Worster and Carlson both said last week.
“Is it tough? Yeah, of course it is,” Smith said. “But tough times don’t last, tough people do. We expect to continue to get better all the time and play our best basketball here late in the season.”
A few weeks ago, games this week at Stanford (Thursday) and California (Saturday) looked like good chances for the Utes to get some momentum going late in the season, but that might no longer be the case.
Stanford (15-10, 8-7) won 76-65 at Oregon State on Saturday and is 10-3 at home. Tipoff for Thursday’s game is at 9 p.m. MST and it will be televised by ESPNU.
Cal (11-15, 4-11) upset Oregon 78-64 in Eugene on Saturday to complete the road sweep up north and is similar to Utah in that it has lost a lot of close games and is probably better than its record indicates.
Smith said the Utes will bounce back, and one night, they are going to put it all together.
“We have a resilient group. We have a tough group, a tough group mentally, a tough group physically,” he said. “… You know, we are still learning how to win.
“Our guys have had a tremendous attitude, but we are still learning how to win.”
Utes, Cardinal on the air
Utah (9-16, 2-13) vs. Stanford (15-10, 8-7)
Thursday, 9 p.m. MST
At Maples Pavilion, Stanford, California
Radio: ESPN 700