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Trending up: How much will the Runnin’ Utes improve next season?

Second-year coach Craig Smith learned his team needed to get more athletic and physical after going 11-20 last season, and recruited with that in mind

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Utah basketball coach Craig Smith talks to players during timeout in first-round Pac-12 tournament game against Washington.

Runnin’ Utes basketball coach Craig Smith talks to players during a timeout in a first-round Pac-12 tournament game against Washington at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Wednesday, March 9, 2022. With a challenging first season under his belt, Smith sees brighter days ahead for Utah basketball.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

University of Utah men’s basketball fans who want a public declaration from second-year head coach Craig Smith that the Runnin’ Utes will be better in the upcoming season than they were last year are not going to get it.

Not in the middle of May, anyway.

In a wide-ranging discussion last week with reporters who cover the sagging program, Smith declined to put a specific date on the Utes’ return to glory, saying only that the expectation remains the same as when he got the job a little more than a year ago.

“Every year our expectation is to make the NCAA Tournament, and that’s our goal,” he said in response to a Deseret News question about a possible time frame for success. “That is what we strive to do, and then win when we get there.”

“I am always hesitant to put timelines on things, (because) I think … it can hold people back, and there is no point in doing that.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith on expectations for the 2022-23 season

Despite having turned around programs at Mayville State and South Dakota and guided a Utah State team picked ninth in the Mountain West to a league title, Smith said he has always been hesitant throughout his career to promise success to fans eager to see a reversal of fortunes. But he’s not quite ready to adopt that old Rick Majerus mantra of under-promise and over-deliver, either.

“I am always hesitant to put timelines on things, (because) I think … it can hold people back, and there is no point in doing that.”

There’s no doubt that the program struggled last year, after Smith inherited only four returning scholarship players and two players who averaged more than nine minutes per game from Larry Krystkowiak. Utah went 11-20 last year, 4-16 in a just OK Pac-12 conference that didn’t perform all that well in the NCAAs. The Utes dropped 10 straight games in the middle of the season, the longest losing skid in program history.

“So I knew (before the season started) that it could be an uphill battle with some things,” Smith said.

The good news for Utah fans is that the program is further ahead this May than it was last May, both in terms of returning players and incoming prospects, Smith said.

“We have some continuity coming back, some guys who played a lot of minutes for us last year,” Smith said. “I still believe in my core, and in my heart, that we can build a program here, sustained for longevity, although that certainly is getting harder and harder in a lot of respects. So you just gotta adapt and adjust.”

Obviously, building a program in the age of the transfer portal and free one-time transfers without the loss of immediate eligibility is what makes the task harder. 

Smith has already experienced that, as guards David Jenkins Jr. and Both Gach and big men Lahat Thioune and Riley Battin have hit the transfer portal. Center Dusan Mahorcic was booted midseason, while walk-ons Jack Jamele and Harrison Creer are also moving on.

The biggest loss is probably Gach, who has entered his name in the 2022 NBA draft. The two-time Ute (he played at Minnesota in between stints in Salt Lake City) was wildly inconsistent, however.

“I think every year is a new year,” Smith said. “Sometimes you just kinda catch fire. And momentum is an amazing thing. You can look really bad for three or four games, and all of a sudden you catch fire. Sometimes it goes the other way on you. You just never know how it is going to go.”

Some familiar faces return

Unlike after the 2020-21 season, when the Utes went 12-13 (8-11 in Pac-12) and Krystkowiak lost his job, the team’s nucleus is returning this season, led by second-team All-Pac-12 performer Branden Carlson (who averaged 13.6 points and 6.0 rebounds) and leading rebounder Marco Anthony (8.7 points and 7.1 rebounds).

“Branden being an all-league guy who has been part of the league for three years (is big),” Smith said. “Marco, I thought, had a good year. I know he wants more and can be better.”

Starting point guard Rollie Worster (7.7 ppg.), a couple of outstanding rising sophomores, Lazar Stefanovic and Gabe Madsen, and glue guys Jaxon Brenchley and Eli Ballstaedt (a walk-on) have also said they are coming back. Smith said junior college transfer Bostyn Holt’s rehab from an early season knee injury last year is coming along well.

“We are going to have a much different team. I love the guys coming back,” Smith said. “They have done a great job in the weight room. They are very determined. And I am not saying that lightly. The guys have been working and putting the time in, and not just spending time, but investing time.”

He said every returning player has made “some very noticeable changes physically” with the help of Utah’s strength and conditioning staff.

New faces, new optimism

One positive about all the departures is that they give Smith a chance to rebuild his roster in the way he likes. He wanted more athleticism, toughness and physicality, and it appears he has gotten it.

Utah has announced the addition of three players since the season ended — two high schoolers and an acquisition from the transfer portal. At least three other players have said via social media posts that they are heading Utah’s way.

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Cincinnati guard Mike Saunders Jr. is among the new arrivals to the Utah basketball program. Utah coach Craig Smith is impressed with Saunders’ athleticism and strength and says, “We need him to come in here right away and make a big-time impact for us as a playmaking guard.”

Justin Rex, Associated Press

Cincinnati transfer Mike Saunders Jr. is a 6-foot guard who is bigger than Smith thought he was. 

“He is a really strong, athletic, explosive bulldog,” Smith said of the former Wasatch Academy product. “So we need him to come in here right away and make a big-time impact for us as a playmaking guard.”

Smith said Saunders played about 20 minutes a game for the Bearcats, and looked especially good against some of the better teams on the schedule such as Illinois and Houston.

Smith spoke extensively about prep stars Keba Keitaand Will Exacte after their signings were made official in April. 

Keita, a 6-8 center from Wasatch Academy, “is stuck together,” Smith said. “I mean, he is a brick house. ... He is tenacious and tough. He is just ferocious in everything that he does. He is so explosive.”

Exacte, a 6-6 guard from Montreal, was Utah’s first signee for this year’s class and is built like Anthony, the returning starter.

“When those two guys stand side by side, they almost look like twins,” Smith said. “So Wilguens is a physical specimen. He is a playmaking guard. He is a guy that can play in a lot of different spots, a very talented guy that can get to the rim and make plays off the bounce.”

Wisconsin Badgers forward Ben Carlson announced on April 30 he is transferring to Utah. Recently graduated BYU forward Gavin Baxter has said he will join the U. as a walk-on in 2022-23, and Serbian forward Luka Tarlac is reportedly headed to Utah as well, per various reports.

“I think as a whole, all of them love to be in the gym. And that is not just lip service,” Smith said. “They truly love to be in the gym and working out. They love the game. They love to compete. They are all physical. They play with a level of physicality we need.”

About last year

Even though Utah’s season ended two months ago — with an 82-70 loss to Washington in the Pac-12 tournament — memories are still fresh in Smith’s mind. He has also had time to review Year 1 over and over again, in an attempt to identify areas of improvement.

Bottom line, he said, is that the Utes were not physical enough to win more games, especially in the Pac-12. They also lacked depth. After a 5-0 start, injuries took their toll.

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Utah’s David Jenkins Jr. is knocked to the ground as teammate Jaxon Brenchley helps him up in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. Jenkins, who transferred to Utah from UNLV, is back in the transfer portal looking for a new place to play.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“When you look at our team, the year didn’t go the way we wanted it to last year, and we all know that. But when you really look we lacked physicality, up and down the lineup,” Smith said. “We (also) lacked toughness and athleticism.”

He believes the new recruits and transfers will solve a lot of those issues.

“These guys bring a lot of that to the table (in that regard). These guys love to lift. They love to work out and condition. They want to be the best that they can be. They love playing as hard as they can, all the time. And when you have guys like that in your program, it brings out the best in everybody. Competition is an amazing thing.”

Smith said his successful teams have looked more like a football team, and other coaches have told him as much.

“And I am like, ‘Yeah, that is why we are good, right?’” Smith said. “We didn’t always look like a football team last year. And that’s OK. It is what it is. That’s just where we were at in the stage of our program, and so I think we have really improved our athleticism, our physicality, our toughness. There are going to be some growing pains. We are going to be a fairly young team. But I am very, very excited with these guys coming in, and the guys that are coming back.”

Who’s on the schedule?

The Utes won seven of their 10 nonconference games last season, losing to then-No. 18 BYU, TCU and Missouri. The rematch with BYU is Dec. 17, 2022, in Provo.

For a multiteam event the Utes will also play in the 2022 Rocket Mortgage Fort Myers Tip-Off in Florida before Thanksgiving, Nov. 21 and 23. The other teams in the Beach Division are Georgia Tech, Marquette and Mississippi State. Matchups and TV times have not been announced.

“So we are a lot further along today than we were last year at this time,” Smith said of the 2022-23 slate, adding that only one slot remains to be filled. “When your record is not very good, scheduling becomes a little bit easier.”

Runnin’ Utes basketball in 2022-23

Key returners: G Marco Anthony, G Jaxon Brenchley, G Lazar Stefanovic, G Rollie Worster, C Branden Carlson, G Gabe Madsen, G Eli Ballstaedt (walk-on), F Bostyn Holt.

Key losses: G David Jenkins Jr., C Lahat Thioune, G Both Gach, F Riley Battin, C Dusan Mahorcic.

Key newcomers: G Mike Saunders Jr., G Wilguens Exacte Jr., C Keba Keita, F Ben Carlson, F Luka Tarlac, F Gavin Baxter (walk-on).