Runnin’ Utes searching for more shooting success ahead of regular-season finale at Colorado Saturday
Senior center Branden Carlson said energy and enthusiasm still intact despite four-game losing streak
An obvious remedy for the ills plaguing the Runnin’ Utes right now would be to get 40% of their starting lineup — guards Gabe Madsen and Rollie Worster — healthy as quickly as possible.
Both are recovering from ankle injuries. Madsen hasn’t played since Jan. 28 and Worster hasn’t played since Feb. 18.
“We know we can make a run and we know we are a better team than we’ve shown. We just have to get in the gym this week and get into the flow that we had before this losing streak started and get that flow back.” — Utah center Branden Carlson
And since coach Craig Smith said Tuesday that it is “unlikely” that either starter will play Saturday (3:30 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Networks) in the regular-season finale at Colorado, now seems like a good time to look for other answers to get the Utes out of their four-game losing streak before next week’s Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas.
They need to shoot better, for starters. Obviously, that’s not going to be easy without Madsen and Worster, but there’s no question that the Utes simply aren’t executing well enough on offense to win games against the better teams in the Pac-12.
“Too many breakdowns last weekend,” Smith said Tuesday after reviewing Utah’s 78-71 loss to No. 4 UCLA and 62-49 loss to USC. “We gotta be able to execute what we are trying to execute and know what we are looking for on the offensive end.
“We just have to get better and try to find a way to gain some momentum on Saturday as we head into the Pac-12 conference tournament,” he continued.
Utah (17-13, 10-9) can no longer get a top four seed and a first-round bye in the tournament, so the Utes will definitely play Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena in a first-round game. If the Utes beat Colorado, they will be the six seed. If they lose, they get the seven seed.
The possibility exists that the Utes could finish in a four-way tie for fourth, but the tiebreakers in that scenario favor Arizona State and Oregon over the Utes.
Colorado (15-15, 7-12) is celebrating Senior Day on Saturday and is still hoping to get into contention for an NIT bid.
The Utes are on the NIT bubble now, to some extent, with a NET ranking of 70, so a victory over an up-and-down Colorado team with a NET of 74 would go a long way toward helping the Utes hold off the Buffs for a spot in that second-tier postseason tournament.
“Iron sharpens iron,” Smith said of the task that lies ahead. “So we gotta tighten up some things on both ends of the floor.”
Chiefly, the Utes need to shoot the ball as well as they did back on Feb. 11 at the Huntsman Center, when they handled Colorado 73-62 by shooting 49.1% and held the Buffs to 37.1% shooting. Utah was 5 of 9 from 3-point range in the first half to build a 38-32 lead at the break.
Seniors Branden Carlson and Marco Anthony combined to go 13 for 26 from the field in that game, each scoring 17 points.
Carlson told the Deseret News Tuesday that spirits remain high, despite the losing skid.
“We are still playing for a Pac-12 championship in the conference tournament, but right now we just gotta focus on our current game that we have Saturday,” he said. “The vibe of the team is still good. Everyone is still motivating and encouraged knowing that it is not over until it is over.”
Carlson acknowledged that his own shooting needs to pick up, even if the absences of Worster and Madsen allow teams to defend him differently.
“We know we can make a run and we know we are a better team than we’ve shown,” he said. “We just have to get in the gym this week and get into the flow that we had before this losing streak started and get that flow back.”
With or without its starting guards, defense has never been much of an issue with this team. After playing the four best teams in the league the past two weeks, the Utes are still 12th in the country in field goal percentage defense (39.4%) and 17th in 3-point percentage defense (29.9%).
Their problem pretty much all season has been offense. Utah is 254th in the country in field goal percentage (43.2%) and 212th in 3-point field goal percentage (33.6%).
Smith shut down the notion that Utah will hold guys out against Colorado with an eye toward being rested and totally healthy for the conference tournament.
“If guys are available to play, they are going to play,” he said. “So we are not really thinking about the conference tournament (yet).”
Cincinnati transfer Mike Saunders had 25 points against UCLA and eight against USC, and could obviously be a key to Utah’s success in March. However, Smith cautioned that USC was able to see what Saunders did against UCLA and made it more difficult for the junior to operate and score.
Runnin’ Utes on the air
Utah (17-13, 10-9)
at Colorado (15-15, 7-12)
Saturday, 3:30 p.m. MST
At CU Events Center
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: ESPN 700
Smith also said the Utes are banged up beyond Worster and Madsen, and that much of this week would be about getting guys’ legs back. Carlson acknowledged that he welcomed the midweek bye.
“I mean, no injuries for me, knock on wood. So that’s good,” Carlson said. “But yeah, you do definitely start to feel that fatigue and your body gets drained a little bit. But we have a great support staff and lots of recovery stuff to be able to do here.
“So I would say, yeah, I was, and kinda am, banged up. But I think it has (lessened) and we gotta push through it at this point and take our time to make sure we get the recovery we need.”