Why injuries aren’t the only reason Runnin’ Utes will be shorthanded vs. No. 4 UCLA
Coaching staff was close to handing out a 13th scholarship last fall, but couldn’t get recruits into school
Ever since they had to play without star center Branden Carlson, who was ill, at Pauley Pavilion and were blasted 68-49 in Los Angeles, the Runnin’ Utes have pointed to Thursday’s rematch at the Huntsman Center as a chance to get some revenge — and perhaps pick up a much-needed Quad 1 win for NCAA Tournament résumé purposes.
The opportunity to accomplish both is still there — the Bruins are now No. 4 in the country in the NET rankings — but the Utes will again be shorthanded against Jaime Jaquez Jr., Tyger Campbell, Jaylen Clark, Amari Bailey, David Singleton and the rest of the Pac-12-leading Bruins who are honing in on a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance.
“When we didn’t get the one guy, we had another guy. But there was a snafu and we couldn’t make it happen. I don’t know if it would have made a huge difference or not. I mean, the one guy, a couple of our assistants, as soon as they watched him, said this guy has a legitimate chance to be an NBA player.” — Utah coach Craig Smith
You could say Utah’s dreams of pulling off a monumental upset — like they did way back on Dec. 1 when they stunned then-No. 4 Arizona 81-66 — are on life support, especially considering that starting backcourt Gabe Madsen and Rollie Worster almost certainly won’t be available to play.
Tipoff is at 9 p.m. and the game will be televised by FS1. Utah’s No. 8-ranked women’s team will host Cal at 5 p.m. as part of a double-header at the Huntsman Center, where the curtains blocking off the upper bowl will be raised for the first time this season.
Fans can use their men’s tickets for free admission into the women’s game, and vice versa.
“The fans impact winning and we are going to need every single one of them,” said Utah mens’ basketball coach Craig Smith.
They could also use a few more healthy players. Madsen has been out since the beginning of the month with a high ankle sprain, while Worster suffered a left ankle sprain early in the second half last Saturday at Arizona State and is expected to miss both games this week.
The Utes host third-place USC (19-8, 11-5), which currently has a NET ranking of 55 and therefore is a Quad 2 opportunity, at 6 p.m. Saturday for Senior Night.
“So the combination of losing the two of them — and I wouldn’t anticipate either one of those guys playing this week — yeah, it changes things,” Smith said. “It is a fine line of reinventing yourself in Game 29, and then just figuring out who can fill what roles. Everything is in play right now. Everybody is in play.”
The Utes have played five games without Madsen — going 2-3 in that stretch — and have clearly missed the sharpshooting sophomore. However, Lazar Stefanovic has played well in a starting role and picked up some of the scoring slack.
Utah’s biggest problem since Madsen’s injury — and before that, really — has been depth. The issue is now compounded by Worster’s likely absence. There is also a leadership void.
“Rollie does so many things for us. Obviously, he has had an outstanding year, overall,” Smith said. “He is our primary ball-handler. He is one of our best defensive players. He is just one of those few veteran guys with real experience coming into the season. And he has a great voice. He is just a steadying force for our team. He is just a rock.”
So Stefanovic, who is averaging 10.5 points per game, likely slides into the point guard role, and freshman Wilguens Exacte will probably get his first career start — at the shooting guard spot.
Look for another freshman, 6-7 guard Luka Tarlac, to perhaps get more time than the 5.5 minutes per game he has averaged in 17 appearances.
As the Deseret News reported Tuesday, Smith said junior point guard Mike Saunders is not playing a lot because “he has just got to get better. He just has gotta be better and more consistent and produce.”
Utah’s depth issues are exacerbated by the fact that, for the second-straight year, Smith and his staff elected to sit on an open scholarship. Assuming Madsen and Worster don’t play, Utah will be down to 10 scholarship players against one of the best teams in the country.
Smith defended that decision Tuesday without being asked to, repeating his oft-stated reasoning that he doesn’t want to add a player just for the sake of adding a player who could potentially disrupt chemistry and team cohesion.
Smith also said the Utes were close to landing a couple players just before school started last fall, but it didn’t work out.
“There were a few guys, to be quite frank. When we didn’t get the one guy, we had another guy,” he said, without naming names. “But there was a snafu and we couldn’t make it happen. I don’t know if it would have made a huge difference or not. I mean, the one guy, a couple of our assistants, as soon as they watched him, said this guy has a legitimate chance to be an NBA player.”
The coach added that the misses are regrettable, but the Utes will move forward with what they have, which is a team that plays well enough on defense to stay with almost anybody, but struggles to score at times and tends to turn the ball over too much.
“So I mean, yeah, (another scholarship player) could always help, when you get to this point,” he said. “I mean, depth matters, right? But anyway, it is what it is, and that is in the past, and we will see what happens.”
Runnin’ Utes on the air
No. 4 UCLA (23-4, 14-2)
at Utah (17-11, 10-7)
Thursday, 9 p.m. MST
At Jon M. Huntsman Center
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: ESPN 700
For what it’s worth, Smith and the Utes aren’t throwing in the towel — to borrow a phrase from the sweet science of boxing. They believe they have better than a puncher’s chance of making some noise this weekend, beginning Thursday against high-flying UCLA (23-4, 14-2).
A win “would be huge,” Smith said. “… Obviously they are on top of the league right now, and they are really, really good. … So the way the schedule presents itself, we still have opportunities to play ourselves into some things.
“It is a big weekend for us, obviously, and I know both schools have name recognition and a great brand, so it will be a tough test.”
Especially for a team that has had some tough breaks.