The month of April has been kind to Utah’s men’s basketball program, particularly the past week.

“It has been a heckuva week for the Runnin’ Utes,” coach Craig Smith told The Zone Sports Network during the DJ & PK radio show Thursday morning.

It started with the Utes landing Cincinnati transfer Mike Saunders Jr. on April 3, continued on Wednesday when former Ute and current BYU assistant coach Chris Burgess agreed to replace departed Utes assistant Eric Peterson (now South Dakota’s head coach) and got better Wednesday night when Wasatch Academy senior Keba Keita picked the Utes over UNLV.

Utah announced the signing of Canadian guard Wilguens Exacte Jr. — who had committed in January — on Wednesday and the signing of Keita, an ESPN top 100 recruit (No. 84), on Thursday moments before Smith went on the air with Patrick Kinahan and David James.

“That dude is ferocious in every way,” Smith said of Keita, a 6-foot-9 center from Mali, West Africa. “He just plays the game with a ferocity that you don’t find very often.”

Regarding the signing of the 6-foot-6 Exacte, who prepped at the NBA Academy Latin America by way of Montreal, Quebec, Smith said the three-star shooting guard “is a kind of do-it-all guy who is a strong, physical, tough guy. He is relentless on both ends of the floor.”

Smith couldn’t comment on Saunders Jr., who also prepped at Wasatch Academy, because the proper paperwork hadn’t been completed as of Thursday. Saunders played two seasons at Cincinnati and will be reunited at Utah with Utes assistant Tim Morris, who was an assistant at Cincy under coach John Brannen for two years before joining Smith’s staff last year.

“That dude is ferocious in every way. He just plays the game with a ferocity that you don’t find very often.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith on new recruit Keba Keita

Smith also told the radio show that he couldn’t really comment on the “specifics” of the Burgess hiring “until everything checks out.”

“We are working diligently on those positions and I couldn’t be more excited about the direction things are going,” he said. “I will leave it at that.”

Speaking generally about the importance of having a former Runnin’ Utes player on his staff, Smith said he went looking for a person that is “very well-rounded” and not just a recruiting ace or a teaching ace.

“When there is a passion, and an energy, and a true love for your alma mater, or your dream school, when it comes to recruiting (it helps a lot),” he said. “But I think there is a little bit more to it. And when it comes to hiring guys, there are a lot of things you look at, and I am always going to be patient and diligent to make sure we are doing things a certain way.”

Smith said he wants guys who know how to coach and teach, and can bring things down in a way that is very clear and concise. “Because it is not how much I know, or (assistant) DeMarlo Slocum knows, or Tim Morris knows. It is a matter of what your players know, and so you have to be able to articulate that in a manner in which they can clearly understand. And it is different for every guy.”

Craig Smith needed a ‘Utah man’ on his staff; BYU assistant Chris Burgess fits the bill
Utah receives commitment from Cincinnati guard transfer Mike Saunders Jr.

Utah plays at BYU on Dec. 17 this year, according to the Runnin’ Hoops Podcast.

Smith noted that he is now looking to replace director of scouting Brandon Ubel, who is following Peterson to South Dakota.

“There are a lot of things you dial into, and we are really, really excited with the direction we are going,” he said.

Where Utah’s roster sits now

Since the Utes’ disappointing season ended on March 9 with an 82-70 loss to Washington, dropping Utah’s record to 11-20, several players have entered the transfer portal: David Jenkins Jr., Riley Battin, Lahat Thioune and Jack Jamele, a walk-on. Of course, Illinois State transfer Dusan Mahorcic is also in the portal, having been dismissed from the team midseason.

The goings in March and comings in April leave Smith with two scholarships available to hand out to bring the total to the NCAA-allowed 13.

“We do have another commitment that is out there. I can’t talk about it,” Smith said, most likely referring to Saunders, who picked the Utes over interest from Miami, BYU, UNLV, Wichita State and others, according to “But certainly, we need to have speed and size. We really need some front court help, which we are going to get (with Keita).”

Saunders enters Utah as a sophomore with three seasons of eligibility remaining.

“I love where we are going. We still have a couple — two or three — scholarships left to fill,” Smith said. “And our staff is working very diligently to make that happen and get the right guys in here that can get us back to the NCAA Tournament.”

Barring any unexpected late transfer portal entries, the eight returning scholarship players are seniors Marco Anthony and Both Gach, juniors Jaxon Brenchley, Branden Carlson and Bostyn Holt and sophomores Rollie Worster, Gabe Madsen and Lazar Stefanovic.

“I like the guys that are returning,” Smith said. “I think we have a good blend of toughness and skill.”

Teammates said throughout the season that Holt’s early, season-ending knee injury was a devastating blow because the junior college transfer played so well in preseason camp and the first few games of the season. If he comes back healthy, he will contribute a lot in 2022-23.

Who are they still targeting?

Leaks regarding who the Runnin’ Utes are recruiting — from the transfer portal or high school ranks — come much less frequently than at other instate schools, it seems.

A poster on Twitter and Utezone, part of the network, which carries the handle @Utebuntu, keeps a list cleverly named #CraigsList of which prospects the Utes are currently recruiting. 

The poster, who is aided compiling the list by Andrew Crowley of the aforementioned podcast, lists Louisville transfer D’Ante “Tae” Davis as someone Utah is still pursuing. Davis signed with the Cardinals last November, but announced in March he had gotten out of his NLI and reopened his recruitment due to a coaching change. Utah is also interested in Davis’ brother, sophomore wing Dre Davis, who entered the transfer portal on April 5.

Darius Burford, a 6-foot guard who is transferring out of Elon after averaging 11.7 points per game last season, is visiting Utah the weekend of April 30, according to Joe Henricksen of 

Southern Miss forward Isaih Moore, 6-9, is in the portal again, having transferred to USM from St. John’s, and told in late March that Florida State, Iowa State, Utah and Arkansas were contacting him the most. Moore is a grad transfer looking to play a fifth and final season. 

Former American Fork star Isaac Johnson, who played last year at Oregon, is in the transfer portal and recently told The Salt Lake Tribune that he wants to play in Utah and has recently visited Utah State and BYU and wants to set up a visit to Utah. The level of the Utes’ interest in the brother of BYU forward Spencer Johnson isn’t known.

After all, the Utes are pretty tight-lipped in such matters.

Current makeup of Runnin’ Utes’ 2022-23 roster


Marco Anthony

Both Gach


Branden Carlson

Jaxon Brenchley

Bostyn Holt


Rollie Worster

Mike Saunders Jr.

Lazar Stefanovic

Gabe Madsen


Wilguens Exacte Jr.

Keba Keita