Can Utah ‘play with the big boys’ at this year’s Charleston Classic? Why it might have an edge
Here’s a look at the 8-team field and what to watch for as the Runnin’ Utes play three games in four days
Craig Smith has managed to lead his team to the championship game of its annual multiteam event in nonconference play each of his first two seasons at the University of Utah.
Two years ago, the Runnin’ Utes won the Sunshine Slam, beating Tulsa in the championship.
Last year, Utah advanced to the title game, where it lost a close contest against Mississippi State, a First Four team in last season’s NCAA Tournament.
Getting to the title game at this week’s Charleston Classic, though, will be a greater challenge, thanks to No. 6 Houston, now of the Big 12 Conference, being in the eight-team field.
The Cougars will be the overwhelming favorite to win the Charleston Classic, and Utah could face Houston on the second day of the tournament.
Before that, though, the Runnin’ Utes will take on Wake Forest of the Atlantic Coast Conference on Thursday (7 p.m. MST, ESPNU) to cap the first day of action.
Utah is guaranteed three games in the tournament that will be played at TD Arena in Charleston, South Carolina, with its second contest on Friday and third on Sunday.
This comes after an opening week where Utah dominated in home victories against Eastern Washington and UC Riverside, winning by an average of 32 points.
“Our guys are pumped to go down there. We did what we were supposed to,” Smith, the Utes’ third-year head coach, said after the team’s win last Friday. “Now we go down there and it’s a working trip.
“If you’re going to play with the big boys, you’ve got to go where the big boys play.”
Fifth-year center Branden Carlson said he likes where Utah stands heading into the tournament, after the team showed last week that it will rely on a defense-first mindset to facilitate its offense — it worked, as Utah averaged 91.5 points in those two wins.
“I think this team’s in a great spot. We have some things to work on but I think it’s going to be great to go in and play against Wake Forest to start this tournament off,” Carlson said of the Utes’ Classic opener.
“… We’ve got to come in with that mindset to play against a high-level team. It’s something we’re looking forward to and excited to get to play.”
During the summer, the Runnin’ Utes took an overseas trip to Spain, where they played four exhibition games in a week; an excursion that allowed the team to build chemistry together before preseason training camp began.
That experience could come in handy for Utah when it faces the prospect of playing three games in four days in Charleston.
Colorado transfer Lawson Lovering mentioned that during tournaments like this, there’s not the same practice and preparation time as the rest of the season, particularly nonconference play, when games are more spread out. Utah won’t play for a week after the Charleston Classic and has just 11 nonleague games spread over eight weeks this season.
These tournaments are about playing games in quick succession, something this group gained familiarity with during its trip to Spain.
“It’s going to be an advantage for us, because we’ve already done that this summer as a team,” Lovering said.
In addition to Utah, Wake Forest and Houston, the other five teams in the Charleston Classic field include LSU, St. John’s, Dayton, North Texas and Towson.
Six of those teams are currently ranked in the top 75 of the latest KenPom ratings. Utah, at No. 35, is second only to Houston (No. 2) in the KenPom ratings among the eight teams.
“This is going to be a great event. Who knows how we’re going to do, obviously we want to go 3-0,” Smith said. “… There’s eight good teams going down there.”
Here’s a look at the eight-team field.
No. 6 Houston Cougars
2023-24 record: 3-0.
KenPom rating: No. 2.
The dish: Houston enters the Charleston Classic as the nation’s best scoring defense, giving up just 43 points per game to a trio of overmatched early-season opponents.
The Cougars’ guard-heavy lineup is led by Baylor transfer L.J. Cryer, who has averaged 15.0 points, 2.3 assists and 2.0 rebounds in the early going. Damien Dunn, a Temple transfer, and redshirt sophomore Emanuel Sharp are both averaging 12.7 points per game.
While Houston doesn’t have a particularly tall front court — no player over 6-foot-8 has played significant minutes this season — the Cougars have seven players averaging four or more rebounds per game and own a plus-13 rebounding margin.
The Cougars, who advanced to the Sweet 16 last year and are entering their first season in the Big 12 under 10th-year coach Kelvin Sampson, also have resume-building matchups with Xavier and Texas A&M later in nonconference play.
Utah Runnin’ Utes
2023-24 record: 2-0.
KenPom rating: No. 35.
The dish: Utah is one of the nation’s best teams defensively through the season’s first week-plus, allowing opponents to shoot just 34.4% from the floor, including 21.5% in the first half, in wins over Eastern Washington and UC Riverside.
The Runnin’ Utes’ experienced roster centers around 7-foot big man Branden Carlson, a two-time all-Pac-12 performer who is averaging 13.5 points and 5.5 rebounds thus far.
In addition to Carlson, Utah also has 7-foot-1 center Lawson Lovering and forwards Ben Carlson (6-foot-9) and Keba Keita (6-foot-8) manning the front court — that’s helped the Runnin’ Utes have a top-five rebounding margin nationally at plus-21.
Guard Cole Bajema, a transfer like Lovering, leads a balanced Utah scoring attack — he is averaging 15.0 points per game and has made a team-high six 3-pointers. Bajema is one of seven Utes averaging double-digits in scoring, among them shooting guard Gabe Madsen (12.0) and point guard Rollie Worster (10.5), who leads the team in assists (7.5) and steals (3.5).
2023-24 record: 1-1.
KenPom rating: No. 64.
The dish: The Tigers enter the Charleston Classic trying to shake off a disappointing loss to Nicholls — LSU rallied from 24 down against the Colonels before falling on a last-second 3-pointer.
Will Baker, a 7-foot grad transfer center from Nevada, is averaging 15.5 points and 4.5 rebounds through his first two games as a Tiger. Fellow big man Jalen Reed is the team’s leading rebounder (7.0) and also averaging double-digit points (11.0) in his second season at LSU.
The Tigers added several players from the transfer portal this offseason after a 14-19 campaign, but one of those — Tulane guard Jalen Cook, who started his college days at LSU and averaged 19.9 points last year with the Green Wave — was denied a waiver from the NCAA to gain eligibility this season. LSU has appealed the decision.
2023-24 record: 1-1.
KenPom rating: No. 67.
The dish: The Flyers, the preseason favorite to win the Atlantic 10 Conference, enter the Classic looking for another chance to make a strong impression after losing a close game at the Big Ten’s Northwestern to end last week.
Dayton is led by 6-foot-10 forward Da’Ron Holmes, who is averaging 18.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game. Nate Santos, a 6-foot-7 transfer from Pittsburgh, leads the team in rebounding (9.5) and is third in scoring (8.5).
The Flyers have often been successful under seventh-year coach Anthony Grant — they’ve won 20 or more games four of the past five seasons and been ranked a handful of times, though their best season — 29-2 in the 2019-20 season — ended prematurely when the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wake Forest Demon Deacons
2023-24 record: 1-1.
KenPom rating: No. 71.
The dish: In his second season as a starter, 6-foot-4 guard Cameron Hildreth has paced Wake Forest offensively in the early going — he’s averaging a team-high 22.5 points per game while shooting 54.8% from the field, has a team-high eight assists, and scored a career-best 33 in the season opener against Elon.
The Demon Deacons can counter Utah’s front court length with some of their own — forward Andrew Carr stands 6-foot-11 and center Matthew Marsh 7-foot-1. Carr is also averaging over 20 points per game (21.0) and leads the team in field goal percentage (65%), free throws made (14 of 16), rebounds (8.5) and blocked shots (3.0).
The Demon Deacons, who most recently lost a close game at Georgia, are coming off their first back-to-back winning seasons in over a decade — since the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons — under fourth-year coach Steve Forbes.
St. John’s Red Storm
2023-24 record: 1-1.
KenPom rating: No. 74.
The dish: One of the most intriguing names to follow in the Charleston Classic will be the Red Storm’s new coach, Rick Pitino.
The college head coaching legend is in his first season at St. John’s following three successful years at Iona, where he took the Gaels to the NCAA Tournament twice. Now, he’s trying to turn things around at St. John’s, a one-time NCAA regular that hasn’t been to the tournament since the 2018-19 season.
There’s been a lot of turnover at St. John’s this season — Pitino brought in 12 new players, including 10 transfers, and he cited that transition phase with so many new players as a major reason the Red Storm lost most recently to Michigan.
St. John’s is led by 6-foot-11 center Joel Soriano, one of the few mainstays on the roster from last year; he is averaging a double-double with 18.5 points and 10.0 rebounds per game.
North Texas Mean Green
2023-24 record: 2-0.
KenPom rating: No. 91.
The dish: The Mean Green are coming off one of their most successful seasons in team history — North Texas went 31-7 last year and won the NIT.
There’s been plenty of change since then — head coach Grant McCasland left for Texas Tech and was replaced by Ross Hodge, who spent the previous six seasons as the program’s associate head coach.
North Texas also lost its top three scorers, with leading scorer Tylor Perry transferring to Kansas State. Junior Aaron Scott took over leading the program and has averaged 22.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks through two games. He’s also hit a team-high seven 3-pointers.
2023-24 record: 2-1.
KenPom rating: No. 140.
The dish: The Tigers bounced back from an opening-night loss to top-25 Colorado with a pair of wins over Coppin State and Robert Morris.
Towson is led by its front court: 6-foot-8 forward Tyler Tejada led the team in scoring (12.0 points per game) to go with 3.7 rebounds, while 6-foot-7 forward Charles Thompson is nearly averaging a double-double at 11.3 points and 9.0 rebounds.
The Tigers, who have won 20-plus games the past two years and played in the NIT two seasons ago, will be the decided underdogs in the Charleston Classic.
Charleston Classic schedule
All times Mountain Standard Time
- Game 1: St. John’s vs. North Texas, 11:30 a.m. (ESPNU).
- Game 2: Dayton vs. LSU, 2 p.m. (ESPN2).
- Game 3: Houston vs. Towson, 4:30 p.m. (ESPN2).
- Game 4: Utah vs. Wake Forest, 7 p.m. (ESPNU).
- Consolation 1: St. John’s-North Texas loser vs. Dayton-LSU loser, 9:30 a.m. (ESPNU).
- Semifinal 1: St. John’s-North Texas winner vs. Dayton-LSU winner, noon (ESPN2).
- Semifinal 2: Houston-Towson winner vs. Utah-Wake Forest winner, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN2).
- Consolation 2: Houston-Towson loser vs. Utah-Wake Forest loser, 5 p.m. (ESPNU).
- 7th-place game: TBD, 10:30 a.m. (ESPN+).
- 5th-place game: TBD, 1 or 3:30 p.m. (ESPN or ESPN2).
- 3rd-place game: TBD, 1 or 3:30 p.m. (ESPN or ESPN2).
- Championship game: TBD, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN).