‘They have a great thing going’: Why big guard Cole Bajema left Washington and joined the Runnin’ Utes
The 6-foot-7 wing, who began his career at Michigan and played three years in Seattle, says Utah ‘is the right fit for me’
When Washington’s Cole Bajema decided to hit the transfer portal a few months ago after averaging 8.5 points and 4.2 rebounds per game in his fourth season of college basketball, his father and one of his former club ball coaches told him to jot down a list of schools he could see himself landing at as a graduate transfer.
“I think we could definitely make some noise this year. Obviously there are no promises on roles and whatnot, but I think I can be a contributor. I am optimistic going into the season.” — new Runnin’ Ute Cole Bajema
Utah was high up on that list.
So when Runnin’ Utes coach Craig Smith contacted the 6-foot-7 guard a day or two after his name appeared in the portal, Bajema was thrilled.
“I knew which schools I liked, but I wasn’t going to reach out to any schools — just because I wanted the interest to come from them first,” Bajema said. “So Utah reached out to me no longer than a day or two after I entered, and then I went on a visit probably three weeks after I entered the portal. And so yeah, here I am now.”
Actually, Bajema is still in Seattle, at least for a few more weeks. He’s wrapping up his degree in sociology, and will join the Utes for good in a couple of weeks. He committed on April 18 and his signing was announced on April 25.
“We are excited to welcome Cole to the Runnin’ Utes family,” Utah’s Smith said in a school news release. “A veteran guard with a proven track record of success in the Pac-12, Cole brings size, length and versatility to our program. He is a skilled scorer who can also defend multiple positions. We are confident that Cole will make an immediate impact on our program both on and off the floor.”
Bajema became the third newcomer on the 2023-24 roster, joining former BYU guard Hunter Erickson, by way of Salt Lake Community College, and Colorado center Lawson Lovering. Since then the Runnin’ Utes have added Georgia Tech guard Deivon Smith and Timpview High wing Jake Wahlin, a recently returned missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who had signed with BYU before his two-year church service.
Departures from the 2022-23 roster who had eligibility left include Jaxon Brenchley (Denver), Lazar Stefanovic (UCLA), Mike Saunders (McNeese), Bostyn Holt (South Dakota) and walk-on Hunter Mecum. All-Pac-12 center Branden Carlson is in the process of testing the NBA draft waters — he’s had workouts with several clubs, according to the “Runnin’ Hoops” podcast — and has until May 31 to decide whether he will turn pro or return to the Utes.
Whatever happens with Carlson, Bajema is convinced he’s joining a squad with the potential to make the NCAA Tournament, which was part of his criteria for choosing a destination after leaving a UW team that went 16-16 last year, 8-12 in the Pac-12, and lost 74-68 to Colorado in the first round of the conference tournament.
“For any program I was thinking about going to, that was definitely a big thing I was looking at,” Bajema said. “I think we could definitely make some noise this year. Obviously there are no promises on roles and whatnot, but I think I can be a contributor. I am optimistic going into the season.”
Bajema acknowledges that a school such as Utah was never on his radar until a few years ago. He spent five to six years growing up in Michigan before his family moved to Lynden, Washington, a small town just five miles south of Canada.
He realized a childhood dream of signing with the Wolverines after blowing up on the AAU circuit late in his high school career, but a month before he got to Ann Arbor, coach John Beilein took the Cleveland Cavaliers head job, and Bajema had to get acquainted with a new staff, directed by Juwan Howard.
He averaged just 2.6 points and 3.7 minutes as a freshman at Michigan.
“They weren’t too familiar with my game, which was understandable, because they weren’t the ones who recruited me,” said Bajema, who was a point guard in high school. “So I stuck it out for a year and then went to Washington.”
He averaged 3.1 points and 1.6 rebounds in 15.3 minutes as a sophomore at UW, then his career really took off his junior season as he saw action in all 32 games and averaged 5.4 points per game. He scored 16 points in the Huskies’ Pac-12 tournament win over the Utes in 2022.
This last season, he started all but one game for Washington and became one of the top 3-point shooters in the Pac-12. But after talking in Las Vegas after the loss to Colorado about wanting to return, according to the Seattle Times, he entered the portal two weeks later.
“I wouldn’t say there was one thing in particular as to why I left,” Bajema told the Deseret News Wednesday. “I enjoyed my time at Washington. I just felt like it was the best move for me in my last year of college basketball to do something else.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for the staff, the players, the fans and all that, at Washington,” he continued. “But again, for my last year I didn’t want to go out with any regrets. I feel like there is somewhere else where I can display my talents and Utah just felt like the right place.”
Bajema said the only other school he visited was Grand Canyon University.
“I had more schools reach out in terms of wanting me to visit, but after the Utah visit, and whatnot, I kinda saw how things were going, and it just felt like the right fit, and I made the commitment maybe a week or so after the visit,” he said.
Bajema said during his final two years at Washington he was impressed whenever the Huskies played Utah, and it didn’t hurt that he had some of his best games against the Utes — such as in that conference tournament game. In seven games against the Utes, he averaged 8.1 points and shot 58.3% from 3-point range and 52.8% from the field. He was 13 of 21 from deep in his last four games against Utah.
“I thought coach Smith did a really good job in the recruiting process when I was in the portal, saying, ‘Hey, I think we could use you here,’” Bajema said. “It helped that I had good games against them, but that wasn’t a decision-maker, or anything.”
Carlson showed Bajema around campus, and he also met Rollie Worster, Gabe Madsen and some of his other future teammates. He watched film with coaches, toured the facilities, and just got to know the staff and roster a little bit better.
He’s not sure yet what he will do academically at the U., whether he will join a graduate program, seek a double major, or a certificate.
“I have a few good options, but my main focus right now has been finishing up at the University of Washington and kinda getting that over with,” he said. “It has been a busy last few weeks.”
As for his role with the Utes, Bajema is also keeping an open mind. He calls himself a “two or a three” on the court, a big guard who “brings some versatility to the wing position that I definitely think I can display more this next year.”
He believes his shooting ability can open up the floor more for Carlson, if he returns, and also for Madsen, Utah’s top returning 3-point shooter.
“I think they have a great thing going,” he said. “They have a great core in place. I think I can really help add on to that.”
Bajema said he’s working on his ballhandling and is strength, calling himself “a pretty skinny 6-7 guy” who needs to put on some weight this summer.