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Will Branden Carlson play for Utah vs. No. 14 BYU?

Carlson’s status for the rivalry game is the most pressing question for the Runnin’ Utes ahead of rivalry matchup

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Will Utah Utes center Branden Carlson play against BYU on Saturday?

Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) dunks the ball during a game against the Eastern Washington Eagles at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 6, 2023. Will Carlson play against BYU on Saturday?

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

The most pressing question for the Utah men’s basketball team heading into its matchup with rival BYU on Saturday is whether fifth-year center Branden Carlson will be available against the Cougars.

On Friday, coach Craig Smith provided an indefinite answer.

“We’ve got to think big picture on this thing, too. Obviously, he’s an anchor for us.” — Utah coach Craig Smith on Branden Carlson

“Don’t know yet. Didn’t really do anything yesterday, and so we’ll see how things go today (at practice),” Smith said. “I talked to Trevor (Jameson) today, our athletic trainer, so we’ll just see how things go at practice today, what he can do, what he can’t do, if anything at all.”

Carlson missed the Runnin’ Utes’ 88-86 win over Southern Utah on Tuesday with an undisclosed injury. It was the first time he has been sidelined for a game this season.

Carlson is averaging a team-high 17.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.7 assists this season. He’s also shooting 47.1% from the floor and has made 10 3-pointers, third-most on the team.

Going into the year, one area Carlson was focused on improving in his game was his perimeter defense — the 7-foot Bingham High product declared for the NBA draft this past offseason before deciding to return for one more year with the Runnin’ Utes, and he identified that as one thing that could help him in his pursuit of going pro.

Following Utah’s win over Southern Utah, Smith talked about the importance of keeping the long-term picture in mind for Carlson’s health, even with a rivalry game coming up next.

“BC obviously, being a fifth-year guy, and it’s Utah against BYU. He’s a guy who grew up in this state and from the time he was a little guy, he’s always been following it. I know it matters to him, and I guarantee he’s going to do everything he can to play, but I just don’t know,” Smith said at the time.

“We’ve got to think big picture on this thing, too. Obviously, he’s an anchor for us.”

Carlson’s presence would be valuable against No. 14 BYU, one of the nation’s most high-powered offenses.

The Cougars lead the country in 3-pointers made per game (12.9) and 3-point shots attempted (32.9) and are fourth nationally in scoring (91.9 points per game). BYU is also seventh in the country in effective field goal percentage (59%) and second in assists (22.4).

That’s sure to challenge a Utah program looking for one more signature win before Pac-12 play starts in three weeks — BYU (8-0) is currently ranked No. 1 in the NCAA’s NET rankings, which are used to help determine seeding for the NCAA Tournament.

“They look really good. Right before I came down here, I started looking at some of their numbers and I just stopped because honestly, their numbers are really, really high across the board — on the offensive end, on the defensive end,” Smith said. “And that’s why the NET rankings and … the statistical stuff, the analytics, they love them, and they should.” 

One big man the Utes (6-2) are certain to rely on against BYU is sophomore center Keba Keita, who is coming off a career-high 23-point effort against Southern Utah. In that game, Keita shot 11 of 12 from the field and added eight rebounds, two blocks and two steals.

The 6-foot-8 Keita — who’s made an impact on both ends of the floor with the energy he brings — is averaging 10.3 points and 7.0 rebounds per game and said the game is slowing down for him.

“I’m able to see some things now that I didn’t last year,” he said following the win over the T-Birds.

If Carlson isn’t available, Smith said the Utes would start Ben Carlson again in his place. In Tuesday’s win, Ben Carlson had a double-double with a career-high 15 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 6 of 8 from the floor.

“Ben is one of our most improved players. Maybe that hasn’t always been super easy to see but it is for us because we’re around him every day and he’s a veteran guy,” Smith said. “He brings a lot of physicality to the team. He really understands what we’re trying to accomplish as a team.”

The University of Utah announced Thursday that Saturday’s game (5 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Networks) is a sellout, the first for Utah since Lonzo Ball and UCLA came to the Huntsman Center on Jan. 14, 2017.

Smith said that while players are the ones on the court and coaches will have an impact, don’t undersell the importance of the fans.

Utah-TV box

Utes, Cougars on the air

No. 14 BYU (8-0)
at Utah (6-2)
Saturday, 5 p.m. MST
Jon M. Huntsman Center
Salt Lake City, Utah
TV: Pac-12 Networks
BYU Radio: 102.7 FM/1160 AM
Utah Radio: 700 AM

“Fans impact winning. It’s exciting to be at home and a sellout crowd and just that energy,” the coach said. “When we played Arizona last year, that’s a marquee win obviously, No. 4 team in the country. We had a great turnout that night and it really impacted that win.”

Utah is 5-13 all-time against BYU — and 4-6 at home — when the Cougars have been ranked in the Associated Press rankings entering the contest. It’s been 30 years since the Runnin’ Utes beat a ranked Cougars team, as Utah has gone 0-5 since upsetting then-No. 23 BYU in February 1993 in Salt Lake City.

The fact it’s a longstanding rivalry game — BYU leads the overall series, 134-129 — and one team is ranked just adds a bit more significance to Saturday’s matchup.

“It’s such a great rivalry, and I forget how many games now it goes back, but it’s a long, long time. I think it’s so cool for both fan bases, obviously everybody that’s involved in the game, and it’s one that I think most people circle on the calendar,” Smith said.

“With it being sold out, it adds a little more to it.”

Utah center Keba Keita (13) dunks the ball during the Runnin’ Utes’ 88-86 win over Southern Utah at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023.

Utah center Keba Keita (13) dunks the ball during the Runnin’ Utes’ 88-86 win over Southern Utah at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023.

Hunter Dyke/Utah Athletics