LAS VEGAS — In a somber locker room inside T-Mobile Arena late Wednesday night after the punchless Runnin’ Utes had been upset 73-62 by a Stanford team that is probably much better than its losing record suggests, fifth-year player Marco Anthony searched for the right words to describe how Utah’s season ran off the rails at the end of February and beginning of March.
“No excuses,” Anthony said after what was quite likely his final college game.
“It has been a little bit of a perfect storm here with some of our injuries late in the season. And the toughest part of our schedule (came late), and it kinda all came together here, and I feel bad for the players.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith
A few minutes before that, coach Craig Smith said from the podium that the Utes, 17-15 and with a NET ranking of 80, and with a six-game losing streak severely damaging their resume, are still holding out hope for an NIT bid.
It is a long shot, Smith acknowledged.
“We will see what happens here in the next three or four days, but I love coaching this group,” Smith said. “It is a group that go so much better from a year ago (when the Utes went 11-20 and lost 82-70 to Washington in a first-round Pac-12 tournament game). Obviously we have a lot of room to grow, though, to get where we want to go next year.”
Bottom line to the season is that the Utes were outstanding defensively, below average offensively, and just not deep enough to withstand the losses of key players to injuries — namely Gabe Madsen and Rollie Worster — when their schedule turned downright nasty the last three weeks.
“For me, I really think it was Rollie’s injury (when things started going south),” Anthony said. “Because he is one of our best on-ball defenders. Losing him was really tough for us, and teams started to target us in different ways and we were never able to combat that or figure that out. It really took a toll on us.”
A bigger workload really took a toll on Anthony, too. Assigned the task of trying to slow Stanford’s Harrison Ingram, Anthony went 2 of 7 in 29 minutes and battled foul trouble as well. Smith said from the podium that Anthony “is in way worse shape than Gabe and Rollie” but played through his injuries. He said Anthony practiced just once in the last 10 days.
“Those are not excuses, but it is a reality with basketball. It is a game of rhythm and timing,” Smith said. “So now when you are changing all the different parts, you become a different team. So that is what makes it difficult.”
Anthony confirmed that he practiced just once the past two weeks, but declined to get into specifics of his injuries.
“You never know what somebody is going through physically, mentally,” he said.
What’s next for the only Ute on the 2022-23 roster who has exhausted his eligibility?
“More basketball, hopefully,” he said. “First off, getting healthy again, and then God is going to let me know what is next.”
A transfer from Virginia and then Utah State, Anthony described his two years at Utah as being full of learning experiences.
“We really developed a brotherhood around here and I really felt like this season didn’t go as we wanted it to, but it is still an improvement from last year and so maybe this is what brings it up,” he said.
What will it take to keep it moving up?
Assuming that the 2022-23 season has concluded for the Utes, that question naturally arises.
Is help on the way?
Salt Lake Community College guard Hunter Erickson, who started his career at BYU, was Utah’s only signee last November. Expect the Utes to jump into the transfer portal for more help, particularly shooters and another big man.
“It has been a little bit of a perfect storm here with some of our injuries late in the season,” Smith said. “And the toughest part of our schedule (came late), and it kinda all came together here, and I feel bad for the players.”
Smith said the Utes “were in a position” to perhaps make the Big Dance midway through league play, when they were 8-3 “and were right there.”
Then the wheels came off, and Utah lost 8 of its last 10 games. Utah hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2016, when it went 13-5 in Pac-12 play and eventually lost 88-57 to Oregon in the conference tournament championship game.
The Utes beat Fresno State 80-69 in an NCAA first-round game seven years ago, then lost 82-59 to Gonzaga in the second round in Denver and haven’t been back since.
What’s the remedy?
“We have a lot of good players, we just need more of them,” Smith said. “And it is our job to have a roster so when these types of things happen, we can plug and play.
“In February and March, you are sharpening, you are sustaining, you are staying in a rhythm, you are trying to peak right down the homestretch,” Smith continued. “We have been doing the opposite where we are trying to juggle this, juggle that, figure out who is going to be available and who is not.”
Last offseason, the Utes added a couple pieces out of the high school ranks that should help them long term. Guard Wilguens Exacte and big man Keba Keita showed flashes here and there but were wildly inconsistent.
Smith’s transfer portal additions were not as successful.
Cincinnati transfer Mike Saunders’ plight has been well-documented. Aside from a 25-point explosion in the 78-71 loss to No. 4 UCLA on Feb. 23, he didn’t do much, partly because he didn’t get many opportunities after the first few weeks of the season.
Saunders didn’t play against Stanford Wednesday.
The other transfer portal addition, Wisconsin’s Ben Carlson, didn’t score and had just one rebound against the Cardinal. Carlson started in every game and finished averaging 4.5 points and 4.6 rebounds per game.