Facebook Twitter

‘Our most complete team ever’: Q&A with third-year Runnin’ Utes coach Craig Smith

Program leader expounds on nonconference schedule, Lazar Stefanovic’s departure, scheduling BYU, staff changes, incoming transfers and more

SHARE ‘Our most complete team ever’: Q&A with third-year Runnin’ Utes coach Craig Smith
Utah’s head coach Craig Smith talks with members of the media in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.

Utah’s head coach Craig Smith talks with members of the media as the University of Utah Men’s Basketball team opens camp with practice in the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility in Salt Lake City on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

From welcoming back star center Branden Carlson after the two-time All-Pac-12 player tested the NBA draft waters to adding some key transfer portal additions and promoting a member of his support staff to assistant coach, it has been a busy offseason for University of Utah basketball coach Craig Smith.

“We are working diligently right now in the very early stages of starting to learn that (Big 12) league. But right now, we are going to go full steam ahead to finish the Pac-12 the right way, and with our best foot forward.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith

Throw in a foreign trip to Spain for four exhibition games, staying abreast of conference realignment news — including Utah’s jump in 2024 from the Pac-12 to the Big 12 — and mapping out a nonconference schedule for Smith’s third season on The Hill, and there has been little time to speak publicly about the state of the program and all those other developments.

Utah went 17-15 overall, 10-10 in the Pac-12, a marked improvement from the 2021-22 season in Smith’s first year, when he inherited a roster depleted by transfers and went 11-20 overall, 4-16 in league play.

Smith recently spoke one-on-one with the Deseret News to answer various questions about the well-being and progress of the program since the No. 7-seeded Utes lost 73-62 to No. 10 seed Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas on March 8.

Some answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Deseret News: What were your main takeaways from the 2022-23 season?

Craig Smith: There were a lot of really good things, and then some things we gotta grow from, of course. To start with the positive, I thought we were very, very good on the defensive end of the floor.

According to KenPom (ratings), we had the 37th-ranked defense in adjusted efficiency. We were 14th in field goal percentage defense. We were 10th in the country in effective field goal percentage defense. We were 19th in the country in 3-point field goal percentage defense, and we were top 25 in the country in not fouling. We did a lot of really good things on that end of the floor.

In Year 1, we were so bad on the defensive end. So we really, really improved on that side of the ball.

DN: How much did the late-season injuries affect your offensive production?

CS: Obviously, we were a bit up and down on the offensive side. I thought when (Gabe) Madsen got hurt, that really, really hurt us. And then of course, when (Rollie) Worster went down, that really compounded the problem.

Our lack of consistent production off the bench really showed. And then it was a bit of a perfect storm, as we faced the hardest stretch of our schedule.

And the way the schedule set up, it was perfect for us to play our way into the tournament. But we didn’t get it done, for a multitude of reasons.

At the end of the day, those are just excuses. Part of our job is to have enough depth on the roster to overcome those things, no matter what happens with injuries.

DN: What are some of the positives you will remember from Year 2?

CS: Really proud of our team. I thought we overachieved in a lot of respects, and gave ourselves a chance to get into the NCAA Tournament. We were top four in the Pac-12 most of the year, until the very end. You gotta be able to finish, you gotta be able to go the distance no matter what is thrown your way. So we will live and learn from that.

I am really excited about the guys that are coming back. Good combination of veteran experience and young guys that got to play meaningful moments last year and have certainly taken a step forward throughout the spring, summer and, of course, our foreign trip.

DN: What did you want to get from the transfer portal?

CS: We added a lot of new guys, right? By design, Hunter Erickson was the only guy that we signed early last year (in November). And then we added eight new faces in the spring/summer. We felt like we had to add more depth to our front line, add more size. 

We feel like we did that — specifically with Lawson Lovering, a legitimate 7-foot-1 guy that can do a lot of different things. An experienced guy, he understands the league, having started every game last year for Colorado.

We felt like we needed to get more experience. … We just felt like we had to get older. And certainly with the additions of Lawson, Cole Bajema, who played 29 minutes a game for Washington, those two guys really understand our league.

DN: What is the status of Georgia Tech transfer Deivon Smith’s appeal for a waiver to be immediately eligible as a two-time transfer?

CS: Deivon Smith has three years of experience, one at Mississippi State, two at Georgia Tech. He’s played a lot of meaningful minutes. 

Deivon has an asterisk (by his name) because he is a two-time transfer and we just don’t know if he will be able to play or not. He was able to play in Spain. We played him. But it is a fine line. You gotta prepare like he is going to be able to play, and you gotta prepare like he is not going to be able to play. You gotta be able to have that balancing act and just go full steam ahead.

DN: Along with Lovering, Bajema and Smith, possibly, what other transfers are you excited about? 

CS: We brought in Hunter Erickson, who didn’t play a lot at BYU, obviously. Really played a lot last year at Salt Lake Community College. He had a great summer. Played well overseas. Very excited about him.

And then we brought in some true freshmen: Jake Wahlin, 6-9, 6-10, very skilled, coming right off a mission (after signing with BYU out of Timpview High).

Just two weeks ago, Karahan Efeoglu (of Turkey) signed. He’s a legit 6-7, 231 pounds. Obviously he has got a man’s body. Can really shoot. Played for Turkey in (various international tournaments). Played at a high level. Kind of a jack of all trades. Obviously he is the guy we know the least amount about because he wasn’t here this summer.

So I really like our blend of returners and new guys, and our blend of experience with these young guys. They keep growing and improving.

DN: Was Serbian guard Lazar Stefanovic’s departure to the transfer portal (he signed with UCLA) a surprise to the staff?

CS: You could see most of the transfers coming. That one, I was a little bit surprised. I met with the guys within a week of being done with our season, once we found out we weren’t going to be playing in the postseason. I was not completely surprised.

When you are with your team for six months, obviously you really get to know these guys and they get to know you, and it is not just conversations you have. It is mannerisms, body language, the way they are playing — just a lot of different things that are more subtle.

So, I wasn’t shocked. But I get it, at the same time. He is going to do what he feels like is best for him in the short and long term. Guys don’t give reasons, or whatever. I am not going to go down that road. But at the end of the day, he has to do what he feels like is best for him and that is just part of it. … We don’t want guys that don’t want to be here. Like, we are not going to settle.

I know how great of a situation that we have here within our athletic department, within our basketball program. I am super excited about where this program is headed.

DN: The signing of Efeoglu gives you 13 scholarship players. Was it a priority to have 13 after having only 12 the past two seasons?

CS: I know the scuttlebutt, the talk, whatever you want to call it. Are they going to use 12? Or 13? There have been many years we have not. There have been many years we have, multiple years, we have.

Sometimes it can maybe be a little bit of a risk. But I have always been steadfast in my belief that when you are filling out a roster, it has to make sense. Are they good enough? Do they provide something we don’t have? Does it make sense in the short term and the long term? And of course they gotta want to be here. 

At the time that Karahan committed, we were still recruiting very hard — six or seven guys, that we felt very good about. So I did feel confident we were going to use all of our scholarships this year.

DN: Can this team continue the program’s upward climb?

CS: Yeah, I feel like it is our most complete team ever. … Certainly the most complete roster we have had in our first two-plus years.

We just lacked consistent 3-point shooting (when Madsen got hurt) outside of BC. But I think our 3-point shooting has really improved. Cole can really shoot it. Deivon is a better shooter than his numbers.

Jake Wahlin can really shoot it, Hunter Erickson can shoot it. Karahan can shoot it. Ben Carlson I feel like has made a good jump. Wil (Exacte) has made a good jump. Rollie has become a better shooter. 

Now they have to prove it when the lights go on. But I feel like we are a better shooting team than we have been either of our first two years, specifically last year. 

And then I think we have gotten better off the bounce, more playmaking ability off the bounce. A combination of those things we hope is going to help us.

DN: How happy were you when Branden Carlson elected to return for a fifth season?

CS: I know our staff was happy. And I think he was happy, too. It was a great experience for him. I think he really grew as a person, as a player, going through that process. And that is very normal.

Branden is a Runnin’ Ute through and through, right to his core. He loves the University of Utah. He loves living in Salt Lake City and being a part of this community, and there is just a true passion for this basketball program, this university and our athletic department.

And you feel it around him. He loves it. It was great for him to test the waters. He would be the first to tell you that to be able to go on the circuit and go through these workouts with other guys that are testing the waters, or that have declared, and getting genuine, real feedback from NBA organizations, it becomes very real very fast, and it becomes a really humbling experience, but one you draw a lot of confidence from.

DN: Will BC’s role change with the addition of CU’s Lovering?

CS: He had a great summer. I think there is a certain level of confidence he gained, even more confidence, and he has become a much better leader. He is really using his voice like I have never heard him use it before.

I am really excited to see where he is going to go. We are going to utilize him in a lot more different ways. Certainly, in some of the ways we always have — he is a two-time all-league guy.

But because of his skillset growing and evolving, the combination of that and us adding Lawson Lovering and Keba (Keita) coming into his own, we are going to play BC at multiple positions this year.

DN: Tim Morris is out after two years on your bench and director of player personnel Tramel Barnes is your third assistant now. What can you say about that change?

CS: I would just say change is part of our profession. In any profession, those things occur.

Super excited for Tramel. Everywhere Tramel has been, he’s won. I worked side by side with Tramel for three years, one year at Utah State, two years here. He understands success. He is a very well-respected, very intelligent person and coach. Bright mind, great recruiter. We are really excited about what he is going to bring to this program.

DN: How is the 2023-24 nonconference schedule shaping up?

CS: I thought we were done about seven different times, quite frankly. But we have one game left to get. Seriously, we have had four different teams back out on us, maybe five. … For a multitude of reasons, we have had various teams back out. I think we are really close, but I thought we were really close a month ago.

Of course playing BYU at home is good (on Dec. 9). This is the last year of the contract. Until the news (of joining Big 12 in 2024-25 season) came out, we were going to be extending that contract with BYU, by all accounts. But now we don’t have to worry about that.

Then we thought we had a deal with another high-major conference team for a home and home, but it fell through on their end. We ended up adding Saint Mary’s, which obviously, is a huge game. I expect our game at their place this year, it definitely will be shocking if it is not a Quad 1 game.

I really believe the Pac-12 is going to be better across the board, from the top to the bottom, and everything in between. So, very excited for this season.

DN: Finally, what are your thoughts on the Utes going to the Big 12 in 2024 and were you surprised by how quickly it all unfolded?

CS: I don’t think I was shocked. I don’t get caught up in all this stuff that I really don’t have a lot of control over. I got enough things to worry about, trying to get our program back to where we need to get it, and get this thing rolling.

Mark Harlan, president (Taylor) Randall, (deputy athletics director) Charmelle Green, and our administration, I thought were outstanding. You know, there is only so much you can communicate. I thought Mark was awesome that way.

It is a sad day because of the history of the Pac-12. But you can kinda read the landscape, and when UCLA and USC left, you could kinda see it. … Then when you see Washington and Oregon leave, and the TV contract (not coming to fruition), you can just connect the dots.

We are working diligently right now in the very early stages of starting to learn that league. But right now, we are going to go full steam ahead to finish the Pac-12 the right way, and with our best foot forward.

07272023_UU_MBB_Spain_Game_1_JV_Edits_5.jpg

Utah basketball coach huddles up his team during an exhibition game in Spain, where the Runnin’ Utes played four contests this summer.

University of Utah Athletics