Pac-12 Networks broadcasters Ted Robinson and Bill Walton made an interesting, and fairly accurate, observation Saturday night as the Runnin’ Utes were losing by double-digits to the Oregon Ducks.
The college basketball analysts pretty much described Utah as a one-star team, saying that senior center Branden Carlson, a shoo-in for All-Pac-12 honors, is the only standout player and is surrounded by a bunch of role players.
“I mean, we gotta do it collectively. That’s just the way we are built, and that’s how we gotta do it. ... There were some good things that came out of this, but we obviously have to get better and be better against these types of teams.” — Utah coach Craig Smith
As Carlson goes, they said, so go the Utes. Their suppositions proved on the mark, as the Ducks led by as many as 16 points and rolled to a 68-56 win, their 11th straight over the Utes.
Carlson had a rare off night, by his standards, scoring just 13 points on 2 of 14 shooting. In fairness, Utah’s second-leading scorer, Gabe Madsen (12.1 ppg.) sustained a lower leg injury two minutes and seven seconds into the game and did not return, allowing Oregon to focus its defensive efforts on Carlson.
Lazar Stefanovic came off the bench to hit 4 of 8 3-pointers, but Utah’s lack of another outside shooting threat was noticeable, and Oregon took advantage in improving to 23-2 against Utah in Pac-12 games.
Carlson also struggled offensively in Utah’s 70-60 loss to Oregon on Jan. 7, going 2 of 6 from the field and finishing with 10 points, his second-lowest output in any Pac-12 game this season.
Utah’s margin for error is small, coach Craig Smith has repeatedly said, and that is especially true when the Utes face the better teams in the league — Arizona, USC, UCLA and Oregon.
“Credit to them,” Smith told ESPN 700 radio after the Ducks completed the season sweep, again. “We struggle with teams like this that are super long and have elite rim protection. They just get us sped up.”
When the Utes do get sped up, they tend to miss more easy shots than normal. As Smith pointed out late Saturday night, Utah was just 8 for 34 from 2-point range. They were a reasonable 8 of 23 (34.8%) from 3-point range, which is right at their season average.
A case could be made that Stefanovic and fellow guards Rollie Worster and Marco Anthony have joined Madsen in getting close to “star status” in various games this season, but not consistently. Worster and Anthony combined to go 4 of 16 against Oregon as the Utes saw their three-game winning streak snapped.
“We just struggled with some spacing,” Smith said. “With the way they play, you are going to have to be able to make some 3s, and so with Gabe being out we had to do some things that were a little unorthodox or things that we haven’t really done for a while.”
All in all, though, a road split in the Pac-12 is never something to be ashamed about, and Utah (15-8, 8-4) is still in decent shape to finish in the top four in the league and get one of the first-round byes in the Pac-12 tournament.
At 8-4, the Utes are behind UCLA (8-2), Arizona (8-3) and USC (7-3) and a half-game ahead of Oregon (7-4) in the standings. Losing the season series to Oregon could prove costly for the Utes if they tie in the final standings, because the Ducks would own the tiebreaker due to that sweep.
“We took care of business on Thursday (with the 63-44 win over Oregon State),” Smith said. “Tonight was obviously difficult. We knew it was going to be difficult. But to get where we want to go, it is going to be difficult. It ain’t all roses. It is not always cookies and cream. And you gotta fight and compete and find different ways to win.”
Part of that is getting other guys to step up when Carlson is out — as he was in the 68-49 loss to No. 7 UCLA on Jan. 12 — or getting double-teamed consistently, or having an off night.
“I mean, we gotta do it collectively. That’s just the way we are built, and that’s how we gotta do it,” Smith said. “… There were some good things that came out of this, but we obviously have to get better and be better against these types of teams.”
Up next for the Utes is Stanford, a team they handled 71-66 at Maples Pavilion on New Year’s Eve, but also a team that has some decent wins under its belt. The Cardinal (9-12, 3-7) has won four straight, including a 71-64 win over Oregon on Jan. 21 at home.
“We gotta take the positive, and we gotta keep this train going,” Smith said. “We gotta take care of business against this Stanford team that is playing a lot better as whole than they (were) right after Christmas when we played them. … Last home stand we got a sweep, and we gotta come out there and do that. But it all starts with practice, and let’s get healthy.”
He was referring to Madsen’s condition, obviously. The sophomore from Minnesota who transferred in from Cincinnati sustained some sort of lower leg injury but was on the bench cheering on his teammates in the second half.
Smith did not have a definitive update after the Oregon game, saying only that the sharpshooter “seemed to be doing fine” in the locker room after the disappointing loss.
Runnin’ Utes on the air
Stanford (9-12, 3-7) at Utah (15-8, 8-4)
Thursday, 6 p.m. MST
At Jon M. Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700