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Runnin’ Utes expecting an ‘ugly tug of war’ in second matchup with Washington State

Utah beat the Cougars when they visited Salt Lake City, but the Utes are still winless on the road in Pac-12 play

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Washington State Cougars center Rueben Chinyelu (20) and Utah Utes center Keba Keita (13) jump up for a rebound during a men’s college basketball game between the University of Utah and Washington State University at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 29, 2023.

Washington State Cougars center Rueben Chinyelu (20) and Utah Utes center Keba Keita (13) jump up for a rebound during a men’s college basketball game between the University of Utah and Washington State University at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 29, 2023.

Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Craig Smith likened playing Washington State to getting a root canal.

“It’s like you’re going to the dentist. They’re prying in there, they’re digging in there,” the Utah men’s basketball coach told reporters Monday

“Every time when we play, it feels the same. It’s just this ugly tug of war type of basketball.”

That’s the type of environment the Runnin’ Utes will be heading into when they face the Cougars on Wednesday night (8 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Network) in Pullman, Washington, as part of a two-game road swing that includes playing at Washington on Saturday.

“Every time when we play, it feels the same. It’s just this ugly tug of war type of basketball.” — Utah coach Craig Smith on facing Washington State

First up is a Washington State team that Utah is familiar with: During their opening week of conference play, the Utes fended off challenges from both the Cougars and Huskies to start Pac-12 action 2-0, beating Washington State by 22 and Washington by five.

That 22-point margin, though, doesn’t tell the whole story — when Utah and Washington State met at the Huntsman Center in late December, the Utes fell behind by six early in the second half before Smith challenged his players, and they responded.

A 16-2 run that included four 3-pointers from Gabe Madsen gave Utah control of the game, as the Utes shot 60% in the second half against a traditionally stingy defense.

Now, in Round 2, there will be familiarity for both teams.

“The good news for our guys, I think things go a little bit quicker the second time around. We have a real genuine feel for their personnel, their scheme,” Smith said.

“What we try to do — our guys know the strength of, what these guys play like and how strong they are. Because I think the first time you play somebody, there’s always that five- to eight-minute stretch where it’s like a boxing match, where you’re trying to kind of feel each other out. Well, we’ve already been down that road already, so there’s just so much more familiarity playing them the second time.”

The Cougars have been a bit of an enigma thus far in conference play. They sit at 4-4 in Pac-12 action, 13-6 overall and won four of five at one point, including a 73-70 win over top 10 Arizona on Jan. 13.

In its most recent game, though, Washington State lost in overtime to Cal, which was projected to finish last in the Pac-12 but so far has outdone that prediction under first-year coach Mark Madsen.

The Cougars lead the Pac-12 in field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot just 40.1% from the field, and are giving up 67.2 points per game.

In their first matchup, Utah showcased its own stout defense, holding Washington State to 31.3% shooting and its top two scorers, Myles Rice and Isaac Jones, to a combined 19 points on 7 of 30 shooting between the pair.

This will mark the halfway point of conference play after Utah makes its Washington trip, and there is the chance that the Utes could find themselves in first place in the league standings at that point.

After sweeping Oregon State and Oregon last week, Utah is just a half-game behind conference leaders Arizona, Oregon and Arizona State.

“Obviously now you get to this point, and of course every game matters, but I feel like it matters even that much more, when you look at the standings how everything is just so jumbled up in the Pac-12,” Smith said.

Utah, which is unbeaten at home this season, still has yet to win on the road in conference play, going 0-3 away from Salt Lake City since Pac-12 action began.

Against Arizona State and Arizona, transition points and turnovers cost the Utes. 

In a loss at Stanford a week and a half ago, Utah had to adjust to having two starters miss the majority of the game — guard Rollie Worster was ruled out prior to tipoff, while center Lawson Lovering was injured less than four minutes in.

Utah MBB-Wash State on the air

Utes on the air


Utah (14-5, 5-3)
at Washington State (13-6, 4-4)
Wednesday, 8 p.m. MST
Beasley Coliseum (Pullman, Wash.)
TV: Pac-12 Network
Radio: 700 AM




“We just haven’t been as disciplined as we need. I don’t feel we had the edge that we need,” Smith said of Utah’s recent road woes.

In place of Worster and Lovering, guard Deivon Smith and center Keba Keita have shined in sliding into the starting lineup — the coach said Deivon Smith, in particular, “you can really see it and feel it the last three games where he’s really kind of gotten basketball’s rhythm and timing.”

Still, the Utes need to travel the winning formula they’ve developed at home and make it work on the road.

“We’ve got to eliminate losing to win,” Craig Smith said. “You don’t have to play perfect, but we do have to be tighter with all of our stuff. We’ve got to rebound, play with more physicality.”