‘A big opportunity here for me’: How Utah coach Craig Smith landed Wisconsin transfer Ben Carlson
Second-year Utah basketball coach Craig Smith drew upon his Minnesota roots to get 6-foot-9 forward, a former four-star recruit, to the Beehive State
Second-year University of Utah basketball coach Craig Smith spoke Ben Carlson’s language.
That fact, as much as anything, is why the 6-foot-9 transfer from Wisconsin is now playing for the Runnin’ Utes.
Carlson is from Woodbury, Minnesota, a suburb in the Twin Cities area; Smith is from Stephen, Minnesota, a tiny town (population: 550) near the North Dakota border.
“A big thing was coach Smith made it pretty clear that there is a big opportunity here for me. They had a big need for someone to come play the four (spot), so that was a big draw for me, just knowing there is an opportunity here to play a lot.” — Ben Carlson
When Carlson entered the transfer portal after two seasons with the Badgers — more on that in a bit — Smith was one of the first coaches to contact him, having been familiar with the one-time four-star recruit from his AAU traveling all-star team days.
“Coach Smith is a Minnesota guy, like me,” Carlson told the Deseret News last week. “He reached out as soon as he (was allowed) after I got into the transfer portal, and it just kind of went from there.”
Carlson says he was contacted by 15 or 16 schools, including Northwestern and Nebraska of the Big Ten, before deciding to take visits to Vermont and Utah.
Obviously, he chose the Utes, committing on April 30 and signing on May 19.
What sealed the deal?
“A big thing was coach Smith made it pretty clear that there is a big opportunity here for me,” Carlson said, having arrived in Salt Lake City in early June. “They had a big need for someone to come play the four (spot), so that was a big draw for me, just knowing there is an opportunity here to play a lot. I still gotta work hard and earn it, though.”
Tramel Barnes, Utah’s second-year director of player personnel, is also from Minnesota, and knew all about Carlson’s exploits at East Ridge High in Woodbury. Carlson was ranked No. 88 in the ESPN 100 for the 2019-20 school year and a finalist for Minnesota Mr. Basketball. He had 2,004 points and 1,083 rebounds in his prep career playing for the Raptors.
Coming out of high school, he had offers from the likes of Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio State, Xavier, Stanford and Purdue. Staying reasonably close to home was a priority in his decision back then, he said.
Not this time.
“On my visit here, just seeing the campus was a big thing; it’s beautiful,” Carlson said. “It is obviously a great school with a good basketball program and all that, but it is also the right fit for me. That was key.”
When Carlson was officially in the fold, Smith said via a school news release that the big man fills a big need for the Utes, who are still a bit undersized inside for Pac-12 basketball.
“Ben will bring great size, physicality and toughness to our team,” Smith said. “He has a really good feel for the game and makes his teammates better. Ben is also very competitive and has been around winning his entire career.”
Wisconsin won a lot in Carlson’s two years there, but he wasn’t a big part of it. He appeared in only seven games his freshman year before an injury cut short that season. He scored a total of 20 points, 13 of those coming in the opener against Eastern Illinois.
Last year, he played in 30 games, started two, and averaged 1.8 points and 1.8 rebounds per game. He said he’s “excited and pumped” for a fresh start, and also eager to show what he can do if given steady minutes in a system he believes fits his playing style better than the one at Wisconsin.
Carlson calls himself a “stretch four, or versatile four,” and prides himself on being able to do a little bit of everything on the court.
“It is kind of positionless now days in college basketball,” he said. “I can post up a little bit, take people off the bounce and shoot the 3.”
Carlson and fellow newcomer Mike Saunders Jr., a transfer from Cincinnati who is from Indianapolis and played high school ball at Wasatch Academy in central Utah, share a two-bedroom apartment near campus.
“I have liked it a lot. I have really enjoyed the guys on the team, the campus, the coaches,” he said of his two months in the program. “I have had a lot of fun in the few weeks that I have been out here. … It is a really good group of guys. Wisconsin was the same way. There are some funny guys on the team.”
Carlson said he enjoys fishing, playing video games and collecting shoes. He knew of a lot of places to fish back in Minnesota, but hasn’t figured out where to go yet in Utah. He would like to learn how to fly-fish.
He’s majoring in entrepreneurship and would like to open a basketball training facility when his playing days conclude.