Utah’s Craig Smith was reasonably certain a few months ago that he had accomplished his goal of improving the toughness, physicality and athleticism on his 2022-23 Runnin’ Utes basketball roster.

“We definitely have a lot more physicality on this team, top to bottom. We have a lot more athleticism and speed, and I think we have really good IQ guys as well.” — second-year Utah basketball coach Craig Smith

A half-dozen or so practices and workouts with his rebuilt team, including seven newcomers, have proved it, the second-year coach said last week in a midsummer meeting with reporters who cover the program.

“I like our new guys, and I like what we are doing,” Smith said. “We have a team that has an attitude that craves improvement. We have a bunch of guys that are gym rats (who) love to be in the gym.”

Smith said two players who had knee surgeries last season — returning Ute Bostyn Holt and BYU graduate transfer Gavin Baxter — are only doing noncontact drills now because they haven’t been cleared yet for practices and contact drills. 

“Both are on the same timetable to get back, and hopefully they will be full go here when we get back into school Aug. 23,” Smith said.

Along with Baxter, who should add tremendously to Utah’s inside game if he can stay healthy, other inside players new to the team are 6-foot-9 Wisconsin transfer Ben Carlson and Wasatch Academy product Keba Keita, a 6-8, 230-pound center from Mali, West Africa.

“We definitely have a lot more physicality on this team, top to bottom,” Smith said. “We have a lot more athleticism and speed, and I think we have really good IQ guys as well.”

Smith has been saying since midway through last season — when the Utes went 4-16 in the Pac-12 and 11-20 overall — that upgrades were needed in size, toughness and defense for Utah to compete favorably in the league.

“It is going to be a whole different league,” he said. “… Almost every team has lost 40% to 50% of their roster.”

The good news for Utah is that the core group of starters is back, most notably fifth-year senior guard Marco Anthony, all-conference center Branden Carlson, sophomore guards Gabe Madsen and Lazar Stefanovic and veteran guards Rollie Worster and Jaxon Brenchley.

Smith said practices, which have been filled with a lot of skill development and not much installation of sets and plays, have been spirited and intense.

“I do feel like we have very good synergy at an early time,” he said. “… Like today, I thought there was great energy. I am sure you could feel it. There is a spirit to these guys.”

Other newcomers include Cincinnati transfer Mike Saunders Jr., Canadian freshman guard Wilguens Exacte Jr. and Serbian freshman guard Luka Tarlac.

It appears that Utah will start the season with just 12 scholarship players, instead of the NCAA-allowed maximum of 13. Smith said the roster changes will cause the Utes to play differently than they did last year, but didn’t elaborate.

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“We are just learning everything as we go,” he said. “We are going to do some different things — or, I anticipate doing some different things on both sides of the ball because we are so different as a team.”

The additions of Baxter (when he is cleared to play), Ben Carlson and Keita will certainly help the Utes’ shortcomings in the size department, but they are still a bit undersized around Branden Carlson, the 7-footer from Bingham High.

That’s why the rapid development of Keita is extremely important. So far, so good.

“He is ferocious,” Smith said. “If I had to describe him in one word, I think that’s the word, although there are a lot of words. I called him a freakazoid today (after) one of the dunks that he had, because that dude just does some things that you can’t teach.”

Through five or so practices, that combination of athleticism and size has been impressive and has translated to the rise in competition.

“He is a physical specimen. He is a really smart, very intelligent player,” Smith said. “He does some things very naturally that I thought he would. But in our system it shines even more, quite frankly.”

Smith said Keita has better touch around the basket than he thought when he was battling the likes of BYU and UNLV for Keita’s services.

“He just brings this physical, imposing presence to us that we really need, and because of the combination of what he has, and what Branden Carlson has, and hopefully when Baxter comes back and Ben Carlson (brings), I think we can do some different things where we can play small, we can play big, and we can do it without skipping a beat.”

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Baxter, who hasn’t played a full season since his freshman year (2018-19) at BYU, could be the wild card. When he’s healthy, he’s a gifted shot blocker and rebounder with big-time hops. Against the Utes last year, before he suffered a season-ending knee injury, he had 14 points on 7-of-10 shooting in a 75-64 BYU win at the Huntsman Center.

“Gavin is a very talented young man. He’s got good experience playing at a high level. … He is incredibly athletic. Obviously his biggest nemesis has been just staying healthy, and I say just, because some of it is just out of his control. He’s had some flukish things happen,” Smith said. “And he is a diligent worker, puts the time in. … He goes above and beyond. I think he is very determined and really excited to be here. I think he really fits our style of play and our brand of basketball.”

As BYU fans were well-aware, Baxter has a wing span that measures seven inches beyond his 6-9 frame.

“I had nightmares about Gavin. If you watched our game last year he had this dunk and that dunk and this dunk and every dunk that you could possibly imagine,” Smith said. “And rebounds and blocked shots. Yeah, he was very comfortable in the Huntsman Center.”

BYU forward Gavin Baxter dunks in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. Baxter traded in his blue jersey for a red one in the offseason. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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