Impressive weekend sweep after coach’s challenge revives Runnin’ Utes’ NCAA Tournament hopes
‘We spoke the truth’: Coach Craig Smith’s frank discussion with Utes led to blowout wins over Washington State and Washington
Their season seemingly at a critical juncture after returning home from Los Angeles with back-to-back blowout losses in tow, the Runnin’ Utes just might have turned everything around over the weekend with impressive wins over Washington State and Washington.
Then again, this is college basketball, where the unpredictable routinely happens and upsets are far more prevalent than in other sports, particularly football.
“I think the main thing of it was we were not playing tough enough. We (were) playing like weaklings, I guess is the word I would use. We needed to come out, and we needed to have more of a competitive edge each game.” — Utah senior Branden Carlson
Utah (7-3, 14-7) is not only back in contention to earn one of the top four seeds for the conference tournament, and therefore a first-round bye in Las Vegas, it is still in the running to claim the regular-season Pac-12 title.
That’s a remarkable development, considering how this program went 11-20 last year, 4-16 in Pac-12 play, and was so overlooked last fall that media members who cover the league voted the Utes to finish 10th in 2022-23.
Now, only No. 5 UCLA (8-1, 17-3) is above the Utes in the league standings, while Arizona, Arizona State and USC are all 6-3 and tied for third.
How did the Runnin’ Utes down Washington State 77-63 and Washington 86-61 in the space of three nights at the Huntsman Center?
For starters, they returned to the staples that got them off to that 5-0 start in league play — defense and rebounding — and then rediscovered their shooting touch due to some outstanding offensive execution.
Getting a healthy Branden Carlson back was also significant. After missing the 68-49 loss to UCLA on Jan. 12 due to illness and tiring out a bit in the second half of the 71-56 loss at USC two nights later, Carlson was at full strength last weekend, and it showed.
The Bingham High product made a case to receive Pac-12 Player of the Week honors by scoring 53 points and grabbing 16 rebounds in the two games. The 7-footer was 21 of 29 from the field, 4 of 6 from 3-point range.
But the biggest reason for the turnaround may have happened off the court.
Coach Craig Smith said he challenged every player in the program to get better in some heart-to-heart meetings last week.
“Well, we spoke the truth,” Smith said. “We just weren’t very good. … I just felt like we weren’t as connected as we needed to be, so challenging guys to make the right play (was a big part of it). If you can’t make the right play, then that is a problem.”
It should also be noted that the three teams Utah lost to are pretty good, although Oregon (11-9, 5-4) continues to be one of the most perplexing and inconsistent teams in the league, if not the country. Since beating Utah 70-60 on Jan. 7, a loss the Utes will rue from now until eternity, Oregon sandwiched a 90-73 loss to Arizona State and Saturday’s 71-64 loss at Stanford around blowout wins over No. 9 Arizona and California.
Smith said coaches also challenged players to toughen up, mentally and physically.
“Making those tough-guy plays on both ends of the floor, and willing yourself to do those sorts of things,” Smith explained. “It has got to be everybody. And then challenging guys to make the next step (in their development).”
Carlson, who became the first Ute since Timmy Allen in 2019-20 to score 20-plus points in three straight games, said Smith’s message about toughness resonated far and wide.
“I think the main thing of it was we were not playing tough enough,” Carlson said. “We (were) playing like weaklings, I guess is the word I would use. We needed to come out, and we needed to have more of a competitive edge each game.”
Smith said there was a “closed-door meeting” in which veterans Jaxon Brenchley, Eli Ballstaedt, Carlson and Marco Anthony stepped up and added their voices to what the coaches were stressing.
“The things that Eli said, the things that Jaxon said, were really good and really powerful,” Smith said. “And BC and Marco always do that. But it was good, and you gotta be able to speak the truth.
“Good teams have to handle the truth, good organizations handle the truth,” Smith continued. “And I thought it worked and we got better.”
Are the Utes back on track? They are if they continue to get contributions from everyone, including point guard Rollie Worster and sophomore sharpshooter Gabe Madsen, who were outstanding this weekend after some struggles during the losing skid.
“Yeah, I think it is great to get back on track, obviously, after some tough losses,” said Worster, who was one rebound shy of a triple-double against Washington. “… I think (it is about) honestly, being honest with yourself, looking in the mirror, each and every one of us, about what we need to do to be better, and I think we did that. I think it showed the last two games with our performances.”
Utah hits the road this coming week, facing last-place Oregon State (7-12, 1-7) on Thursday at 9 p.m. MST in Corvallis, then traveling to Eugene for a rematch with the mercurial Ducks on Saturday.
Runnin’ Utes on the air
Utah (14-7, 7-3) at Oregon State (7-12, 1-7)
Thursday, 9 p.m. MST
At Gill Coliseum, Corvallis, Oregon
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700