About 34 hours after he scored a career-high 25 points in the Runnin’ Utes’ deflating 81-76 loss at Colorado last Saturday night, star center Branden Carlson was back in the practice facility on Utah’s campus, hoisting up 500 shots before practice.

Utes 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

The 7-footer wasn’t alone, either. Coach Craig Smith says that nine of Carlson’s teammates arrived at practice at least 45 minutes early the morning after the Super Bowl to work on their games with coaches and/or athletic trainers and team managers.

Clearly, Carlson and the Utes haven’t packed it in on the 2021-22 season, even after losing 12 of their last 13 games and dropping to No. 130 in the NET rankings.

“Everyone is still positive that we can turn this around and get going still,” Carlson said Tuesday. “We have three weeks of the regular season left, and then the (conference) tournament. … But overall the team’s (morale) is good. We are continuing to uplift each other and no one is in negative spirits and bad-mouthing one another, so it has been good.”

The Utes (9-16, 2-13) head back out on the road Wednesday and will face Stanford (15-10, 8-7) for the first and only time this season — barring a matchup in Las Vegas — on Thursday at Maples Pavilion. The game pitting the Pac-12’s seventh- and 11th-place teams will be televised by ESPNU.

Utah, which hasn’t won a conference game on the road in more than a year, will stay in the Bay Area and play at Cal on Saturday (4 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Networks).

Carlson said that while all 13 healthy players in the locker room chime in and have a voice in the direction that discussions go, Utah State transfer Marco Anthony is probably the most vocal leader.

“He was really looking good physically, was playing at a high level. You could see his confidence going through the roof. ... And then obviously he just hit a string of bad luck, with everything out of his control. … I mean, how many guys get an appendectomy?” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith on center Branden Carlson

“He is always talking, always encouraging,” Carlson said.

The Utes’ best player — their leading scorer at 13.8 points per game, the only Ute averaging in double figures — said he’s trying to lead by example, which explains why he was back in the gym early Monday, and why he worked so hard to return from a Jan. 7 appendicitis attack that caused him to miss five games.

“We go into (the remainder of the season) with the mindset that we have already lost so many games, we just gotta go out and keep competing, keep working hard,” he said. “Right now, we just think our time is right around the corner and we can make a big run.”

Smith said seeing so many players in the facility Monday when he arrived for his “busiest day of the week” served to fire him up and take away concerns that the close loss to the Buffaloes after leading for more than 35 minutes would be the straw that breaks their spirit.

“That fired me up,” Smith said. “I was super pumped about that. … I was very, very encouraged by our mentality and our mindset.”

He was also excited to see Carlson bust out against the Buffs, as the Bingham High product went 11 of 19 from the floor and also grabbed eight rebounds in 34 minutes. Smith has said he heard “some dialogue” about Carlson’s toughness, determination and grit before the coach arrived at the U. from Utah State, but nothing could be further from the truth.

“He’s been dynamite,” Smith said. “I think the world of Branden as a person, as a young man, and what he stands for and what he’s about. From the day we were hired, that guy has been all-in from the get-go.”

Suffice it to say Carlson will never forget his third season in the program.

As has been well-documented, he suffered an ankle injury nine minutes into the game against USC on Dec. 1. He returned five days later to score 12 points and grab five rebounds against Cal in 21 minutes, and was rolling along well until testing positive for COVID-19 in mid-December.

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He missed two games due to being in health and safety protocols, but that wouldn’t be the worst of it.

After returning from a nearly three-week absence to score nine points against Oregon State, 15 against Oregon and 12 against Washington, he woke up the morning of Jan. 7 with a nasty stomachache.

That night, after he gutted out a Friday practice, he asked his wife, Maddy, to drive him to the hospital. The pain was that intense. Shortly after Utah lost 77-61 to Washington State at the Huntsman Center, Carlson had an appendectomy.

He returned to action on Jan. 26, playing 19 minutes and scoring eight points in another loss to Wazzu.

Did Saturday’s career game signal he’s back to full health?

“I am really close. I don’t think I was totally there before everything happened with COVID, and I had COVID, and then appendicitis,” he said. “But I would say I am super close and I just think it is going to get better from here.”

The shame is that Carlson worked hard in the offseason to get his weight up to his goal of 230 pounds, and his work with strength and conditioning coach Logan Ogden and head athletic trainer Trevor Jameson was evident when the junior showed up for preseason training camp in October.

A lot of those gains in weight and strength became casualties of his two prolonged illnesses.

“Yeah, I am (almost) back. I am getting there. I am still a few pounds under from where I was,” he said. “But yeah, with COVID, I lost a few pounds, then gained that back. With appendicitis, I lost a lot with that one. But I am getting back there.”

Recruited to Utah by former coach Larry Krystkowiak, Carlson went on a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to England before enrolling at the U.

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He averaged 7.0 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks as a freshman, and 9.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks as a sophomore. He made 10 3-pointers last season, in 20 tries.

“He was really looking good physically, was playing at a high level. You could see his confidence going through the roof,” Smith said. “We could all see that in November, the way he was playing. He was dominant in every way. He was dominant on the defensive end, he was dominant on the offensive end. And then obviously he just hit a string of bad luck, with everything out of his control. … I mean, how many guys get an appendectomy?”

Carlson has improved his shooting touch, going 13 of 38 from beyond the arc and 44 of 52 (84.6%) from the free-throw line. He is averaging 6.4 rebounds per game, second-best on the team.

“You feel bad for him,” Smith said. “… He loves this school, he loves this athletic department, he loves this basketball program, and he has been steadfast with that. He has been tough as nails. And he has shown a discipline and a toughness all along, and I think it shows on the floor.”

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