Memo to University of Utah basketball fans (those who have been AWOL):

The Utes want you to know it’s safe to come back — to the Huntsman Center, that is. The Utes are winning games again. Who woulda thought? It might be time to pull back the curtain and see what’s there.

The Runnin’ Utes were picked to finish 10th in the Pac-12 — one spot better than last year’s finish — but here they are, sitting in second place halfway through the season.

Craig Smith might be working his magic again. Maybe he can do for Utah what he did for Utah State a few years ago. In 2018, he inherited a USU team that hadn’t had a winning season for three years and suddenly the Aggies were knocking out wins again under Smith — a 28-7 record in his first season, then 26-8 and 20-9, a 75% winning percentage.

The Utes said they wanted some of that. They hired Smith to replace Larry Krystkowiak, who had been there so long (10 years) that we finally knew how to spell his name. Guess what happened next after Smith took over.

Wrong. They lost even more games. The Utes were 11-20 overall, 4-16 in in the Pac-12, and at one point suffered through a school-record 10-game losing streak. Most of the players had jumped ship and headed for the transfer portal after Krystkowiak’s departure, which is how things are done these days — when the going gets tough, they get going. When Krystkowiak left, so did six players from the rotation and the team’s top two scorers.

But this season, the Utes are sporting a 14-7 overall record, 7-3 in conference play. They knocked off Arizona, the No. 4 team in the country at the time.

So the Utes have bounced back, which is more than can be said of their fans. Attendance has been so low that the school decided to hide the upper bowl behind a curtain — again. They’ve been doing this for several years, another sign of hard times.

“They decided it creates a better atmosphere,” says John Vu of the school’s sports information department. “They want to fill the lower bowl. Once that fills up they’ll bring down the curtain and open the upper bowl.”

Impressive weekend sweep after coach’s challenge revives Runnin’ Utes’ NCAA Tournament hopes
How the Runnin’ Utes rolled past overmatched Washington on Alumni Night

To do that the school needs to exceed 8,500 fans. According to Deseret News beat writer Jay Drew, the average announced attendance for Utah’s first 10 home games was 5,449, but, as Drew noted, “the actual number of people in the seats … has been considerably lower than that.” Drew reported that between 20-30% of ticket holders are not using their tickets; they’re staying home.

It’s a complex problem for all college basketball programs these days. It might be easier for fans merely to stay home and watch on TV or the internet, if they want to watch it at all. Basketball’s biggest problems: it’s not football.

For some, staying home is a better option than driving to and from the game and finding (and paying for) parking, especially if the team is struggling. There are a lot more choices for entertainment and more televised games than there were during the Rick Majerus era, when the Utes were a national powerhouse and averaging an attendance of 13,000.

View Comments

Utah has another challenge: the 15,000-seat Huntsman Center is one of the 30 biggest college basketball arenas in the country, so while other schools aren’t covering the upper bowl with a curtain, few of them even have an upper bowl in the first place.

But anyway, back to the team. The Utes have already exceeded last year’s win total, having added two transfers, three freshmen and two returned missionaries. The best player on the team is Branden Carlson, a 7-foot senior from Bingham High who, when everyone else was running out of the building to the transfer portal, decided to stay at Utah.

He was named player of the week by the Pac-12 for his performance last week in wins over Washington and Washington State. He averaged 26.5 points, eight rebounds, two assists, 2.5 blocks and 1.5 steals in those games and made 21 of 29 field goals. It marked the first time in 18 years that a Ute player has scored more than 25 points in consecutive games.

Carlson and his teammates might be worth the trouble of actually watching a home game in the arena. Anyway, that’s what the school hopes.

Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) and Lazar Stefanovic (20) celebrate at the Huntsman Center.
Utah center Branden Carlson (35) and Lazar Stefanovic celebrate after Carlson made a 3-point basket in the game against Washington State at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.