‘We are a lot different, no doubt’: Bigger, stronger, more athletic Runnin’ Utes open camp with eight new faces
Utah coach Craig Smith promised a tougher squad in 2022-23, and he has delivered, by the looks of things Monday when camp opened at the U
After a mildly disappointing first season at the helm of the University of Utah’s men’s basketball program last year, coach Craig Smith promised a bigger, stronger, tougher bunch of Runnin’ Utes in 2022-23.
The second-year coach unveiled his new squad to the media on Monday in the first preseason training camp practice, and it was quickly evident that Smith has delivered on his promise. Whether these guys, a group that includes eight newcomers, can improve upon last year’s 11-20 overall record, 4-16 in the Pac-12, remains to be seen.
“It is a good group,” Smith said before practice Monday. “It is a lot different looking team, a lot more physical, a lot more athletic.”
Look no further than the team’s best player, for that.
“I mean, if you watch our practice, we are much bigger, a lot stronger, a lot faster. So if you look at the games last year, the ones that we lost, it is kind of like we were getting bullied throughout the game. I don’t feel like that will be a factor this year.” — Utah senior Marco Anthony.
Senior center Branden Carlson said he spent a lot of time in the weight room over the summer with strength coach Logan Ogden, and that was readily apparent when he chatted with reporters.
“Last season was crazy, with appendicitis and COVID,” he said. “I was up and down in my weight. By the end of the season, I was 205 (pounds). Now I am back up to 225, 226.”
Fellow senior Marco Anthony — the only player on this year’s roster who will exhaust his eligibility at season’s end, due to the “extra year” from COVID — looks like he could start at linebacker in the NFL right now. He’s that put-together.
“The physicality, for sure,” Anthony said when he was asked what is most different about the Runnin’ Utes this year. “I mean, if you watch our practice, we are much bigger, a lot stronger, a lot faster.
“So if you look at the games last year, the ones that we lost, it is kind of like we were getting bullied throughout the game,” he continued. “I don’t feel like that will be a factor this year.”
Like last year, Utah’s opens the season against nearby Westminster College on Nov. 2. Long Island University visits the Huntsman Center on Nov. 7. Key non-conference games include games in the Fort Myers (Florida) Tip-off Classic, a trip to Provo to test BYU on Dec. 17, and a matchup with probable top-25 team TCU at Vivint Arena on Dec. 21.
Smith said he is happy with the non-conference schedule.
He’s also happy with the way the players worked over the summer and through fall, so far.
“We have done a lot more team stuff than we have typically done at this time of year, and that has obviously been intentional with eight new guys to our program,” he said. “We are doing a few different things. Nothing crazy, but certainly some different schemes with different personnel. It has been an awesome group to work with. It is a group that has an attitude that craves improvement.”
Utah fans have wondered all summer whether Smith would dole out his 13th and final scholarship, and to who. He said Monday that even though the Utes will go into a season for the second-straight year with only 12 scholarship players, it isn’t a philosophical decision.
Rather, “it just didn’t happen where we brought in another guy,” Smith said. “Now, something almost (happened), but it didn’t. That’s how it goes. Having scholarships, that is like a pretty important thing, and we are always going to hold out for guys we feel like can help us get to where we need to go. So, we will see how things go. It could be a midyear transfer, at this point.
“Maybe it gets awarded to someone that is currently on the team. We will see how things play out that way.
But it is not a philosophical thing, necessarily. We are not just going to fill it to fill it, either, right? And so I have never believed in that.”
One player who won’t be taking up a scholarship, at least for now, is BYU graduate transfer Gavin Baxter, a 6-foot-9 post player from Timpview High in Provo. Smith said the walk-on has attended every workout and is doing some individual drills, but hasn’t been medically cleared to practice.
“Gavin has been working very, very diligently, been working very, very hard,” Smith said. “And hopefully in the next three or four weeks he will be cleared.”
Junior college transfer Bostyn Holt was cleared a couple weeks ago and has picked up where he left off at the beginning of last season before suffering an ACL injury, Smith said.
Freshman Wilguens Exacte Jr. wasn’t practicing Monday, instead riding a stationary bike in the corner when practice began. Also Monday, Utah got a commitment from a member of the class of 2024, RSL Academy guard David Katoa.
“We are a lot different team, no doubt,” Smith said. “… We have been pretty healthy, all in all, especially this fall. This summer we have had some things where we had 10 and 11 guys. But we are different. We can maybe make a few more mistakes and cover, just because we are a little (more) quick-twitch. We are bigger. … We are very long. We are a lot longer, a lot more athletic.”
Just like he said they would be.