There’s no question who the face of Craig Smith’s basketball team is at the University of Utah this season — it’s BC, Branden Carlson.

The fifth-year senior is the unquestioned leader of an experienced squad built on a solid mixture of returning talent and fresh faces — there’s eight returning players and eight newcomers (four transfers).

“His leadership is at an all-time high,” Smith said of his 6-foot-11 center when the coach met with the media during the opening day of preseason training camp.

Carlson, a two-time Pac-12 all-conference recipient, understands the importance of that leadership role.

“To lead this team is probably my biggest role this year. You know a fifth-year guy, been at Utah my whole time,” Carlson said during Pac-12 basketball media days last month, where he was named to the preseason all-conference first team. 

“I know what Coach Smith expects. I know what the fans feel about this program and where this program needs to go. Having that leadership role is my biggest thing.”

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Carlson’s coach and teammates have seen another aspect of that leadership mantle — he is becoming more of a vocal leader on the court.

“Branden, every single practice, I’ve heard him. He’s loud in practices,” sophomore guard Wilguens Exacte Jr. said. “I think that’s what we need from him, as a fifth-year guy, just to be one of those guys that sets the tone and gives a great example for the rest of us.”

Smith echoed those sentiments. 

“I think of where he was two years ago to where he is today — he just keeps getting better every year. He had a heck of a summer again,” Smith said during Pac-12 media days.

“What really resonates is his voice. He used to be a mute. He’d hardly ever say anything in practice. … But now, he has a great voice and he wants to be coached. He loves to be coached.”

This offseason, Carlson tested the NBA draft waters before ultimately deciding to return to Utah for one more season

That experience gave him the opportunity to learn about what he needs to work on to give himself the best chance at succeeding at the next level. He pinpointed one aspect of his game he’s been focused on improving during the offseason

“My biggest thing has been perimeter defense, really just being able to guard one through five,” he said. “In the league, they switch a lot — bigs screen, so I’ve got to be able to do that. And as well, just having a more physical and aggressive mindset.”

Utah center Branden Carlson, center, celebrates with teammate Lawson Lovering during the Runnin’ Utes’ exhibition win over Westminster at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023. | Hunter Dyke/Utah Athletics

One of Carlson’s fellow seniors, guard Rollie Worster, is heading into his third season as Carlson’s teammate. From testing the NBA waters to summer workouts to an international basketball trip in Spain and through preseason training camp, Worster continues to see growth from the veteran big man.

“I’ve seen him just keep developing his game. He really has a great skillset, especially being able to stretch the floor as a big, and a lot of times he carried our offense last year when we were struggling,” Worster said. “I think he’s continued to develop his game, keep being consistent while having a deeper bag with some more moves.” 

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Plus, the Bingham High product said the Runnin’ Utes have unfinished business — making the NCAA Tournament, something the program hasn’t done during his time at the U.

Utah Utes center Branden Carlson shoots over Washington State forward DJ Rodman at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

The road to that goal begins Monday, when Utah hosts Eastern Washington (7:30 p.m. MST) at the Huntsman Center in the team’s season opener.

Carlson doesn’t solely feel the pressure, though, to deliver a long-awaited NCAA Tournament berth as the program’s leader. It’s a team effort.

“I don’t think there’s too much pressure,” he said. “I think this comes down to the whole team. We have to take responsibility and do our best.”

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