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Utah’s depth could be tested again when Runnin’ Utes return home this week

Health status of Rollie Worster and Lawson Lovering in the spotlight as the Utes prepare for home games vs. Oregon State and Oregon

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Stanford guard Andrej Stojakovic (2) drives between Utah guards Gabe Madsen (55) and Luka Tarlac (21) on Jan. 14, 2024.

Stanford guard Andrej Stojakovic (2) drives to the basket between Utah guards Gabe Madsen (55) and Luka Tarlac (21) Sunday, Jan. 14, 2024, in Stanford, Calif. Utah will be back in action Thursday night when Oregon State comes to town.

Godofredo A. Vásquez, Associated Press

Just like that, health again is a concern for the Utah men’s basketball team as it prepares for a two-game home stretch.

The Runnin’ Utes could be short two starters when Utah hosts Oregon State on Thursday (7 p.m. MST, ESPN) and Oregon on Sunday (1 p.m., ESPN) at the Huntsman Center.

“It’s been a frustrating week, for sure,” Smith said. “... It’s part of (sports) obviously and we do everything we can. ... I think we have a really good sports science team built with about five different people covering a lot of different facets.” — Utah coach Craig Smith on the recent injuries

Two weeks ago, things were looking solid as Utah entered the second week of Pac-12 play with a 2-0 league record and an eight-game winning streak.

In a loss to Stanford last Sunday, though, a familiar bugaboo, injuries, disrupted the game plan.

Four of Utah’s five losses thus far have been impacted by injuries. To wit:

  • Backup center Keba Keita missed games against Houston and St. John’s at the Charleston Classic in November after an injury early in the tournament.
  • Keita missed most of the Utes’ 92-73 loss to then-No. 10 Arizona almost two weeks ago after leaving with an injury six minutes into the game.
  • Point guard Rollie Worster was ruled out for Utah’s 79-73 loss at Stanford last Sunday before the tip — he was wearing a boot on his left foot after getting hurt against UCLA last Thursday — and then the Utes went down a second starter when center Lawson Lovering limped off less than four minutes into the game.
  • In addition, Utah coach Craig Smith confirmed last week that guard Wilguens Jr. Exacte will redshirt this season due to injury after never playing in a single game.

If Worster and Lovering can’t play all or part of this week — when he met with reporters on Tuesday, Smith declined to speculate on their availability and said both were “doing tests” that day — it would shake up the lineup when Utah hosts Oregon State and Oregon.

“It’s been a frustrating week, for sure,” Smith said. “... It’s part of (sports) obviously and we do everything we can. ... I think we have a really good sports science team built with about five different people covering a lot of different facets.

“We’re really in tune to that. We are really very, very diligent to load management and what we need to do to help put our guys in the best position from an athletic standpoint and a freshness standpoint, while still getting the work done that you got to get done and so, it’s unfortunate deal.” 

Fifth-year big man Branden Carlson would presumably slide back to the five if Lovering is out, and Keita and Ben Carlson would be expected to take on extended minutes.

Smith, who said the Utes are “redefining ourselves as we go,” emphasized that Keita needs to stay out of foul trouble — against Arizona State two weeks ago, he picked up two early fouls, and the same happened against Stanford.

“That hurts us and so he’s got to be able to play hard without fouling,” the coach said.

Deivon Smith started in place of Worster in Sunday’s game, alongside starting guards Gabe Madsen and Cole Bajema, and he provided a nice spark with a triple-double (16 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds).

Smith’s ability to carry the burden as the team’s primary ballhandler and facilitator have been on display recently — he had 22 assists over two games last week, and last Sunday, he had an assist on almost half (six) of the Utes’ 13 made 3-pointers.

“Deivon becomes really our true primary playmaking guard on our team. I feel like he’s got very good feel,” Craig Smith said. “... I think he’s getting better. I thought he really got better from that Arizona trip to this week with UCLA and at Stanford, and we’re gonna need him to continue to climb and be even better as we progress through Pac-12 play.”

Hunter Erickson, who served as the team’s primary backup point guard before Smith became eligible, would expect to log more minutes as well.

Guard Jayden Teat and wing Luka Tarlac could also see more meaningful minutes — both entered the lineup earlier than normal against the Cardinal, and while they didn’t contribute much on the stat sheet, both players showed preparedness to step into a bigger role.

“I thought that he gave us some good minutes on both sides of the ball. He’s a savvy guy,” the Utah coach said of Tarlac’s effort Sunday. Regarding Teat, he added, “Jayden is a feisty guy. I think he’s a competitor. ... He’s been very locked in for a guy that’s very rarely played — he knows our sets, he knows what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Any sort of time missed by Worster and Lovering, though, will impact the Utes defensively.

Stanford trailed much of the first half but took a slim lead into intermission, then the Utes couldn’t get enough defensive stops on the Cardinal to ever tie the game or retake the lead in the second half.

“We really missed them — Lawson and Rollie are two of our best defenders, if not our two best defenders. It showed the other night, we weren’t great on the defensive end,” Craig Smith said.

Specifically regarding the 7-foot-1 Lovering, Smith said, “Lawson does some things that certainly don’t show up in (the stat sheet) at a very high level. He’s one of our best defensive players.

“Now, does he make the all the highlight reel plays that Keba makes? No he’s different, right? It’s very different. But I think he’s an elite defender and he covers up a lot of mistakes for our team and he’s done that part all year.” 

Utah went through a situation last season where Madsen was hurt for several weeks during Pac-12 play — Worster missed a shorter amount of time as well — and that played a role in the Utes faltering down the stretch.

The hope is to avoid such a scenario this year, as Utah is currently ranked No. 24 in the NET rankings and is being projected as an NCAA Tournament team.

Picking up three wins in nonconference play that currently qualify Quad 1 victories certainly helps their resume, and to earn more defining wins in league play, getting healthier is paramount.

Up first this week will be an Oregon State team that comes in having lost four of its past five games, with a win over USC just before the calendar flipped to a new year.


Utes on the air

Utah (12-5, 3-3 Pac-12)
vs. Oregon State (9-7, 1-4 Pac-12)
Thursday, 7 p.m. MST
Huntsman Center
Radio: 700 AM

The Beavers led Stanford by 12 in the second half last Thursday in their only game last week, but Oregon State couldn’t sustain the lead and fell in overtime.

“We’ve done some good things in the last couple of weeks,” Oregon State Wayne Tinkle said, according to the Corvallis Gazette-Times. “Obviously we’re not just trying to be competitive this year. We have to find a way to play 40 minutes, 45 minutes of Beaver basketball. That’s moving the ball, sharing the ball, that’s intense defense, that’s help the helper defense.”

Craig Smith is careful to not overlook a Beavers squad that is currently in last place in the conference standings.

“Oregon State throws a lot of things at ya, they always have. They mix up their defenses. Anything you can do on the basketball floor, they do it. They’re also one of those teams that has the most sets — they run a lot of different stuff. So you they just put you in a lot of different positions,” the coach said.

“We’ve got to be on point with it, and we’ve got to be on point with it potentially with some guys that haven’t had a lot of real game experience.”


Oregon State coach Wayne Tinkle walks onto the court before a game against Stanford on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024, in Corvallis, Ore. Tinkle will trot his Beavers into the Huntsman Center Thursday night for a game against the Runnin’ Utes.

Amanda Loman, Associated Press