Runnin’ Utes final loss was a lot like the season — glimpses of competitiveness, but ultimately frustrating
Coach Craig Smith now turns his attention to recruiting and the transfer portal in hopes of getting stars Branden Carlson and Marco Anthony some help next year
LAS VEGAS — The morning after the University of Utah’s men’s basketball team was ousted from the Pac-12 tournament, Utes athletic director Mark Harlan jumped on Twitter to thank the players and coaches for giving it their all in what he called a “challenging” year.
“Stay the course, the future is bright,” wrote Harlan, who was at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas late Wednesday night to witness the 11th-seeded Utes’ mid-second-half collapse and eventual 82-70 loss to sixth-seeded Washington.
Coach Craig Smith also spoke positively of the future, while joined on the postgame podium by his two best players, junior center Branden Carlson and senior Marco Anthony, who has the option of returning for another year and seems to be leaning in that direction. More on that later.
“I’m really proud of these two guys, as well as our whole team,” Smith said after the Utes were outscored 19-4 from the 17-minute mark of the second half to the nine-minute mark. “It is a great group to be around. They brought energy on a daily basis. ... I am very proud of how they handled things and the way that they approached things, and that was a pro (approach).”
Other than that stretch, the Utes played a team that had defeated them twice in two close games in the regular season rather evenly. It was those kind of uneven performances — outstanding one minute, wildly inconsistent the next — that caused the Utes to finish with a 11-20 record (4-17 in Pac-12 games).
I want to thank all involved with @UtahMBB. Very grateful to our coaches, staff and players who gave all they had in a challenging year. Thank you as well to our fans for your support all year. Stay the course, the future is bright-— Mark Harlan (@MarkHarlan_AD) March 10, 2022
“We have to get better as a program with some mental things, with concentration, and not have those lapses,” Smith said. “Because that’s what great teams do. They have the ability to be really good physically and mentally. That’s what great players do.”
Certainly, Utah had some good players in Smith’s first season after replacing Larry Krystkowiak last spring, but only Carlson and Anthony came close to being great — during the season and in the final game.
Anthony went 7 of 15 from the field, 4 for 4 at the free-throw line, for 18 points. Carlson was 7 of 10 for 14 points in 30 minutes, and also had six rebounds, three assists, two blocked shots and a steal. One has to wonder how the Utes would have finished if the 7-footer had been healthy the entire season.
“You look at the game these guys had, and I thought they really, really anchored us and were rocks for us,” Smith said. “You expect that of your upperclassmen, especially at this time of year.”
Carlson spoke from the podium as if he fully intends to return next season, which would be his fourth on the Hill after serving a two-year mission before he enrolled.
“I’m proud of our team,” he said. “It just didn’t go the way we wanted it to in the end, but I think we can still hold our heads high on this season.”
Wednesday’s loss was eerily similar to Utah’s other two losses to the Huskies (17-14) in that Washington did what it does best — turn teams over — and Utah made critical mistakes with the game on the line.
The Huskies scored 21 points off 16 Utah turnovers.
“You can’t have those catastrophic turnovers,” Smith said. “They really, really hurt you. … That’s what (Washington) does. They are No. 1 in the Pac-12 in creating turnovers and steals and No. 27 in the country in steals.”
During Utah’s 10-game losing streak, turnovers and spotty defense were often fingered as the culprits. In February, the Utes seemingly got their turnover problems figured out, but they reared their ugly head again in March. And their defensive effort regressed a bit — particularly in the three recent home losses .
“We’ve had those stretches in games where we get the lead, and then there is always at some point where it would come down to the catastrophic turnovers or just the mental lapses and stuff like that,” Anthony said. “So I guess you could say that kind of defined our season.”
The Utes have now lost their first game of the Pac-12 tournament for the fifth time in the last six years, and seem to be trending downwards when it comes to postseason play. Six of their seven Pac-12 tournament wins came in their first five years in the league.
So which players will be back?
Seniors Riley Battin and David Jenkins Jr. participated in Senior Day activities last Saturday before the blowout loss to Colorado at the Huntsman Center and almost certainly will move on.
Battin played six minutes Wednesday and had two points and two rebounds. Jenkins played just over 12 minutes and had five points.
Both Gach, who began his career at Utah, transferred to Minnesota, and then transferred back to Utah, did not do much against the Huskies, or in the latter part of the season. He didn’t score in nine minutes of action.
Gach chose not to be feted on Senior Night, which might indicate he wants to return.
Then there’s Anthony. Asked by the Deseret News late Wednesday night if anything can be read into the fact that he chose not to be recognized on Senior Night, Anthony was noncommittal.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” he said. “I just decided that with the option being out there that I could return next year, and me not being in a spot where I know completely what I am going to do, I just thought it would be best to just not celebrate it on that day.”