Can resurgent Runnin’ Utes give No. 3 Arizona a good game?
Star center Branden Carlson missed the first game against the Wildcats due to appendicitis, and could sit out again if he can’t recover from rolling his ankle in the 60-58 win over Cal last Saturday
Having won consecutive Pac-12 road basketball games for the first time since sweeping the Los Angeles schools in 2019, coach Craig Smith’s Runnin’ Utes return from their sweep of the Bay Area schools over the weekend with an eye toward keeping this late-season resurgence rolling.
But a couple of significant obstacles stand in their way.
First, they could be without leading scorer and 7-footer Branden Carlson, who rolled his ankle with three and a half minutes remaining in the 60-58 win over Cal and was not on the floor when Riley Battin hit a clutch jumper and Lazar Stefanovic and Marco Anthony made free throws to seal the victory.
It wasn’t as dramatic as the last time the Utes got a road sweep — remember Parker Van Dyke’s buzzer beater against UCLA three years ago? — but almost as satisfying, considering how many close games the Utes (11-16, 4-13) have let get away in Smith’s first year.
Smith said after the game that he didn’t know the severity of Carlson’s injury and more would be known after an examination on Sunday or Monday.
Mighty Arizona (24-2, 14-1) also stands in Utah’s way back to respectability.
The No. 3-ranked Wildcats, who will almost assuredly rise to No. 2 in the Associated Press Top 25 scheduled to be released Monday because they held off upset-minded and much-improved Oregon on Saturday and No. 2 Auburn lost to Florida, visit the Huntsman Center on Thursday. Tipoff is at 9 p.m. MST and the game will be televised by Fox Sports 1.
The Utes flew back to Salt Lake City on Saturday night via a chartered flight.
“I know our guys will come back on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and prepare for a very good team,” Smith said. “Arizona is an elite team. Not a great team, they are an elite team. And there is nothing that they don’t have.”
The Wildcats, who have won eight straight after edging Oregon 84-81 at McKale Center, are No. 2 in the NET rankings. Utah is No. 122, up from No. 125 with the sweep of the Bears and Stanford Cardinal, only its second sweep of the Bay Area schools since it joined the Pac-12 in 2011.
That means Arizona should be a double-digit favorite.
“I mean, Arizona has elite playmaking and elite shooting, unbelievable size and versatility. They have depth. They have great athleticism. They just keep coming at you in waves,” said Smith, whose team lost 82-64 to Arizona on Jan. 15 in Tucson.
Playing without Carlson, who was out with appendicitis, Utah had a couple of six-point leads in the first half and trailed by just one, 46-45, with a little more than 12 minutes remaining. Arizona answered with a 21-0 run to put it away, as the Utes went seven minutes and 27 seconds without scoring.
“It has been a challenge for everybody that has played those guys this year,” Smith said.
Arizona’s only losses were to then-No. 7 UCLA 75-59 in Los Angeles and 77-73 to then-No. 19 Tennessee in Knoxville.
Senior guard Anthony, who led the Utes in scoring (13 points) for only the second time this season — the other was against Fresno State (11) — said the road sweep could do wonders for the Utes.
“I mean, it builds our confidence,” Anthony said, lamenting a scoring lapse in the second half where the Utes went more than six minutes without making a field goal. “We are going to watch film on this game and see what worked, what didn’t. … We are just going to keep finding ways to build.”
Point guard Rollie Worster seconded that notion.
“I think it just gets us excited,” he said. “You know, we have had a lot of close games — some of them we’ve dropped. But just to come out on top the last couple gives us a lot of momentum.”
Smith said the Utes have been doing it by playing better defense, taking better care of the ball, and successfully incorporating Carlson back into the lineup after the big guy missed five games due to the appendectomy.
“I think our guys are really, really tight right now, as tight as we have been all year,” Smith said. “And we are just worried about getting better. There is not a whole lot of drama. We are just competing.”
Utes, Wildcats on the air
Utah (11-16, 4-13) vs. Arizona (24-2, 14-1)
Thursday, 9 p.m. MST
At Jon M. Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: ESPN AM 700
The Utes are making teams earn their points. They are 64th in the country in 3-point field goal defense (31.1%) and 154th in field goal percentage defense (42.6%).
“We have had to do some things (on defense) that quite frankly, as a head coach, are a lot different than I am used to, but have really helped us,” Smith said. “We just have simplified, and dug in on the defensive end. If you are not going to guard, you are just not going to play.”
Carlson’s presence on defense will be needed against Arizona, which features former Ute Pelle Larsson and plenty of other talented players, including Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate Bennedict Mathurin (17.4 ppg) and Azuolas Tubelis (15.2 ppg).
“Getting him back in the lineup makes a huge, huge difference,” Smith said. “He is our most experienced guy at this level of play, and he could be a big-time force for us rebounding, defending, and obviously he is the leading scorer on our team. So getting him back made a big difference.”