Runnin’ Utes point guard Rollie Worster continues to prove the doubters wrong
From lightly populated Montana to Utah State to the University of Utah, Worster has excelled at every level
Rollie Worster could be forgiven for lashing out at his critics and many others who said the Utah State transfer would never be a bonafide Pac-12 point guard a year ago, when the Utes struggled through an 11-19 season with the then-sophomore starting in 29 games.
But the native of Missoula, Montana, simply isn’t built that way.
“It is really cool to be named after someone like my grandpa. I have so much respect and love for him and everything he has done for our family. I appreciate that a lot, and it is an honor to have his name.” — Utah point guard Rollie Worster
“I’ve never really worried much about what (people) outside of my family, close friends and coaches have to say,” Worster said last week. “Everyone has some people who don’t believe in them. That’s OK. Not everyone is going to believe in you, or believe you can succeed.”
Make no mistake about it. The 6-foot-4 Worster has succeeded, so much so that the point guard supposedly brought in from Cincinnati to replace him or take away a good portion of his minutes, junior Mike Saunders Jr., has scarcely seen the floor.
Worster, in his second season at Utah and third as a collegian, is a big reason why the Utes are one of the biggest turnaround teams in college basketball this season. He has started in all 25 of 16-9 Utah’s games, averaging 9.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.2 assists.
Utah, which is in fourth place in the Pac-12 with a 9-5 league record, would be in a world of hurt without the 205-pound Worster this season, especially now that fellow starting guard Gabe Madsen is out this month with a right foot injury.
The Utes begin a crucial six-game stretch on Saturday at home against Colorado (8 p.m., Fox Sports 1), a span of tough games that will likely determine whether they earn their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2016, or have to settle for the NIT.
“The great thing about Rollie is he just keeps getting better and better,” Utes coach Craig Smith said. “All in all, he just continues to improve and become that player he believes he can be.”
Worster, who averaged 7.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and a team-high 3.1 assists last year when the Utes took their lumps in Pac-12 play with just four league wins, has emerged as once of the most irreplaceable Utes, joining star center Branden Carlson, Madsen and sophomore guard Lazar Stefanovic, a starter now that Madsen is out until at least March.
Worster said Smith — who brought him to Salt Lake City after both helped the USU Aggies get to the Big Dance in 2020-21 — has never lost faith in him, a belief that has gone a long way into helping him keep his confidence level high.
“Having that self-confidence to go out every night and prove it is big,” Worster said. “The belief that my family has in me, and our coaching staff has in me, that is huge. That really helped me, especially through the ups and downs last year that we experienced. But yeah, I think it is great to go out and succeed and see success this season.”
Myths about growing up in Montana
Because he’s from Montana and has sported a beard through most of his college career, people assume that Worster is a mountain man who hunts and traps and catches fish and spends all of his time outdoors. A modern-day Jim Bridger, as it were.
Not true, he says, adding: “I’m not the typical Montana person, I guess.”
He’s never gone hunting. He’s caught one fish his entire life — on his first-ever cast at Flathead Lake — and the first and only time he’s gone camping was last summer, in Utah.
“I was more about being in the gym, working out, and participating in sports,” he said. The only time he gets near water outdoors is when he’s wakeboarding at Flathead, where his grandfather owns a cabin.
The nephew of former Weber State top-50 player Randy Worster and son of Scott Worster, who played high school basketball at Ben Lomond in Ogden and briefly for the Wildcats as well, the Runnin’ Utes’ star’s full name is Herman Rolland Worster II.
He is named after his grandfather, who also went by Rollie, and was a decent athlete himself, having played basketball for Nebraska Wesleyan University back in the day. Suffice it to say he’s probably the only “Rollie” in college basketball, and he loves it.
“It is really cool to be named after someone like my grandpa,” he said. “I have so much respect and love for him and everything he has done for our family. I appreciate that a lot, and it is an honor to have his name.”
All-around athlete becomes the pride of Montana
Basketball isn’t the only sport that has been in Rollie’s blood since he was born. He also shined at football, and easily could have played college football, having turned down offers from local college Montana and Montana State after starring on the gridiron at Hellgate High in Missoula as a quarterback on offense and a linebacker and safety on defense.
“By about the seventh or eight grade you knew he would play Division I college sports at some level, either football or basketball,” Scott Worster said. “He loved to compete, and he loved sports from Day 1.”
His older sisters, Sami and Shannon, were outstanding high school basketball players and Shannon went on to help the Montana Western women’s team win a national NAIA championship in March 2019.
Rollie’s exploits in football for the Hellgate Knights are legendary in the Treasure State. Hellgate couldn’t even field a varsity team his freshman season, 2016, for lack of players, but by the time Rollie was a junior he had the program on solid ground with the help of dozens of his buddies who were with him the whole way.
“He is just a great leader, a great kid,” Scott Worster said. “He was a well-rounded kid, but he was definitely dedicated to sports.”
Hellgate snapped a 57-game losing streak in 2018 with a midseason win over Great Falls CMR with Worster at QB, its first win since 2012.
“To win that first game, that is the highlight of his sports career,” Scott Worster said. “It was just perseverance. About 47 kids came out that freshman year, and most of those buggers stayed the whole four years, and took the beatings, like by 40 points every night. When they won that first game, it was awesome. It was really awesome.”
Scott Worster said a coach named Mick Morris deserves as much credit as his son and the other boys, taking over a program that was the laughingstock of the state and turning it around.
“It was an amazing accomplishment and got that program going in the right direction,” Worster said.
Rollie was named all-state on both offense and defense his senior year, but by then he had committed to play basketball for Utah State, and his football career was shelved, only to be mentioned about on every television broadcast when he throws a pinpoint pass or powers past a gawking defender.
On choosing a basketball career
Scott Worster says his son and daughters had a personal trainer — Stevie Pitts of Missoula — when they were youngsters and credits Pitts for helping them develop into outstanding athletes. Hellgate basketball coach Jeffrey Hays was also instrumental in teaching him that game, installing Rollie as a starter when he was a freshman.
Uncle Randy and Shannon and Sami also played significant roles.
“Rollie was blessed with a great support system growing up,” Scott Worster said. “His sisters busted his butt early out in the yard, and would (often) get the best of him. When he would lose, he would storm off to his room and slam the door.”
At Hellgate, Worster was the two-time Montana Gatorade Basketball Player of the Year and finished as the school’s all-time leading scorer. He guided the Knights to the state championship game as a junior and as a senior. However, during the semifinals that year, it was announced that no championship game would be played due to the pandemic hitting and Hellgate had to share the title with Skyview High of Billings.
He said he thinks about that lost opportunity to play for a state title — and make amends for the previous year’s heartbreaking loss — every time he talks to someone from back home.
“It was awful to not be able to go back and redeem ourselves,” he said.
When it came time to chose a college sport, Worster says he went with his first love, basketball.
“I just love it more,” he said. “The weather in Montana restricts football a little bit more. It is just easier to play basketball year-round, so I played it a ton with my two sisters and dad growing up, and I just fell in love with it.”
Picking the Aggies, then the Utes
Worster originally committed to play basketball for Montana, but things didn’t work out and he ended up reopening his recruitment and signing with Utah State, where Smith had become head coach in 2018. He had between five to 10 offers, but none from a Power Six school.
“It was because of coach Smith and the coaching staff and just the positive and fun environment they made it on my visit. It was really good and they were honest with me about everything,” Worster said of choosing the Aggies. “They were straight up about when I was coming in. There were no promises. You get what you earn and you gotta prove it the whole way, and I really liked that.”
Worster started immediately at Utah State and averaged 9.1 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists in Logan as a freshman. But when Smith got the job at Utah, replacing Larry Krystkowiak, Worster entered the transfer portal so he could keep his options open.
As soon as the new Utah coaches were allowed by NCAA rules to contact players in the portal, they reached out to Worster and fellow Aggie Marco Anthony, and the rest is history.
“When we found out that he got the job, we were super excited for him,” Worster said of Smith’s abrupt departure. “When I entered (the portal) I wanted to get an offer from (Utah) and follow him here, because that is who recruited me out of high school, and that is who I wanted to play for.”
Worster and Anthony were roommates in Logan and their first year at Utah, but now they have their own places in Salt Lake City.
Scott Worster said when he heard Smith was leaving for Utah, he was fairly certain his son would follow.
“Roo is a pretty loyal person, but when coach Smith gave him the opportunity to come down to Utah and play at a higher level, he couldn’t say no to that,” Scott Worster said. “He has always felt really, really comfortable with coach Smith, and coach Petey.” Smith’s longtime assistant, Eric Peterson, is now the head coach at South Dakota.
Taking a chance on a Montana athlete
Smith, who is from a tiny town in Minnesota and has coached at all levels of basketball, acknowledges that there might have been some concern early that Rollie Worster didn’t play against great competition in high school, or even at the AAU level because Worster played for a Montana-Idaho Select team and not a team sponsored by one of the big shoe companies.
But after checking out some Hellgate football practices and games and seeing Worster’s athleticism and drive and how he led his teammates, Smith was convinced and made the offer.
“The thing that stood out with Rollie is he is super competitive, super tough, and all he cares about is winning,” Smith said. “He is a bottom-line guy. And then you look at his intangibles. … He is a guy that is more athletic than you think. He can really slide his feet. He is very instinctive. There are a lot of those intangibles and things that are hard to quantify. But you know it when you see it.”
Smith said the USU coaches decided to “trust their gut” and bring Worster to Logan.
“We recruited him to be like a playmaking guard at Utah State. We didn’t know if he would be able to play point guard, or off the ball, exactly,” Smith said. “We threw him right in the mix from Day 1 at Utah State, but he earned that, and he did a good job.”
What’s next for Worster?
Worster is in his third season of college basketball and listed as a junior on Utah’s roster, but technically has two seasons of eligibility remaining due to the NCAA allowing an extra year to student-athletes whose 2020-21 seasons were altered by COVID-19 restrictions.
The criminology major is on track to graduate next year, but hasn’t decided yet whether the 2023-24 season will be his last at Utah, or if he will return for a fifth year as Anthony did this year.
Runnin’ Utes on the air
Colorado (14-11, 6-8)
at Utah (16-9, 9-5)
Saturday, 8 p.m. MST
At Jon M. Huntsman Center
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: ESPN 700
“I haven’t thought a ton about it, just because I am in season now and focused on the current stuff,” he said. “But it is definitely a real possibility that I’ll stay (a fifth year). I guess when the time comes we will see. It is still up in the air.”
He also wants to give professional basketball a shot, be it in the NBA, the G League, or overseas.
“Whoever wants me is where I would want to go,” he said. “Because you want to go where you are wanted. … That is my goal and I am going to keep working towards that, and keep believing in myself.”