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Runnin’ Utes enter second half of Pac-12 season on a roll. Can they keep it up?

Second-place Utah plays at Oregon State on Thursday and Oregon on Saturday with its eye on the Pac-12 lead

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Utah’s Branden Carlson dunks during a game against Washington at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Jan. 21, 2023.

Utah’s Branden Carlson dunks during a game against Washington at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023. The Utes are off to the Great Northwest this week for games against Oregon State (Thursday) and Oregon (Saturday).

Ryan Sun, Deseret News

How good were the Runnin’ Utes the first half of the Pac-12 season, which concluded for them with last weekend’s sweep of the Washington schools?

Good enough to push the surprising Utes into second place in the league standings, and second-year coach Craig Smith into the conversation for conference coach of the year honors.

“We have been able for the most part to be healthy. Things can always change, but I think role definition is pretty established right now for this team, and it is pretty clear what is going on. … We gotta do what we gotta do to win basketball games.” — Utah coach Craig Smith

But momentum can be a fickle thing in college basketball, particularly on the road where home-court advantage is arguably greater than any other sport. That’s why Smith and his team are taking nothing for granted this week as they prepare for another set of games away from the Huntsman Center.

Utah (14-7, 7-3) faces one of the teams tied for last place in the standings, 2-7 Oregon State (8-12 overall) on Thursday in Corvallis, at Gill Coliseum, an old, smallish arena where they have not won since 2018. Tipoff is at 9 p.m. MST and the game will be televised by the Pac-12 Networks.

The Utes, a half-game ahead of No. 6 Arizona, Arizona State and USC in the standings, play at longtime nemesis Oregon on Saturday having lost 10 straight games to the Ducks, including that 70-60 setback on Jan. 7 in Salt Lake City that ruined Utah’s 5-0 start in league play.

“We got six weeks to go in the regular season,” Smith said Tuesday in his weekly press briefing with reporters. “Hopefully (their season) is longer than that. Midway point in league play. Right around this time of year, you see some teams ascending, you see some flat line, and you see some are just ready to be done with it. Hopefully we are the team that is eager and hungry to be the very best that we can be.”

Is Oregon State ready to be done with it? Not really.

The Beavers walloped California 68-48 in Berkeley on Saturday, and always seem to play hard for coach Wayne Tinkle despite their lack of experience and talent. Jordan Pope, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week, leads OSU with a 12.4 scoring average, while Glenn Taylor Jr. chips in 11.6 points per game.

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Oregon State guard Jordan Pope drives against Arizona State in Corvallis, Ore., Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023. Pope, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week, leads OSU with a 12.4 scoring average.

Amanda Loman, Associated Press

If you are thinking the Utes just played these guys, you would be right. Utah routed OSU 79-60 on Jan. 5, clamping down defensively after the Beavers made eight 3-pointers in the first half.

“I think your prep time is a little less because of the familiarity,” Smith said.

However, he noted that Oregon State plays up to 12 guys a game, and recently changed up its starting frontcourt, which adds to the need for a new, updated scouting report.

As for the Utes, their rotation is tightening a bit, as four starters — Branden Carlson, Gabe Madsen, Marco Anthony and Rollie Worster — played 32 minutes or more in Saturday’s 86-61 rout of Washington. Sixth man Lazar Stefanovic played 24 minutes and starting four man Ben Carlson played 17.

Nobody else logged more than nine minutes.

That was partly because backup post player Keba Keita sustained a lower leg injury in the first half and played just three minutes. Also, emerging contributor Bostyn Holt was coming off an illness and got in only briefly in garbage time.

Smith said Tuesday morning that Keita was scheduled to practice later that day.

“So hopefully he will be fine,” Smith said. “I mean, barring anything unforeseen, I would anticipate him playing.”

Veteran reserve Eli Ballstaedt has been out with a concussion.

“We have been able for the most part to be healthy,” Smith said, after injuries contributed mightily to last year’s disappointing record. “Things can always change, but I think role definition is pretty established right now for this team, and it is pretty clear what is going on. … We gotta do what we gotta do to win basketball games.”

UtesBeavs

Runnin’ Utes on the air


Utah (14-7, 7-3)
at Oregon State (8-12, 2-7)
Thursday, 9 p.m. MST
At Gill Coliseum
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700

It will be interesting to see this week if Smith pairs Branden Carlson and Keita — provided the freshman is healthy — on the court at the same time. Carlson is the reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week and one of the hottest players in the country, having scored 21, 28 and 25 points in each of his last three games.

Carlson hasn’t said whether this is his final season as a Ute, but Smith acknowledged Tuesday that NBA scouts have reached out to learn more about the versatile 7-footer who can return for a fifth season in 2023-24 for his “extra year” due to COVID-19.

“So we have not sat down and talked about (Carlson’s plans),” Smith said. “… We are going to have some guys graduate this spring that will still have a year of eligibility left. At the end of the year we will sit down and talk about that.”

Utah Utes head coach Craig Smith reacts to a foul call

Utah head coach Craig Smith reacts to a foul call during game against Oregon at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023. Depending on how the second half of the season plays out, Smith could be a candidate for Pac-12 Coach of the Year.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News