Facebook Twitter

3 questions for Utah basketball heading into the 2nd half of Pac-12 play

The Utes are still being projected as an NCAA Tournament team, though injuries and road woes have contributed to Utah sitting at .500 in league action

SHARE 3 questions for Utah basketball heading into the 2nd half of Pac-12 play
Utah Utes guard, Deivon Smith (5) jumps for a basket against Oregon Ducks guard, Jermaine Couisnard (5) and guard Jackson Shelstad (3) at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Jan. 21, 2024. The Utes won 80-77.

Utah Utes guard, Deivon Smith (5) jumps for a basket against Oregon Ducks guard, Jermaine Couisnard (5) and guard Jackson Shelstad (3) at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Jan. 21, 2024. The Utes won 80-77.

Marielle Scott, Deseret News

From one weekend to the next, it’s been a rollercoaster of emotions for the Utah men’s basketball team through the first half of the Pac-12 season.

The Runnin’ Utes have been successful at protecting their home court — Utah has yet to lose at the Huntsman Center this season — but they are winless on the road through 10 league contests.

Here’s how conference action has played out thus far for Utah:

  • Starting Pac-12 play with tough-minded home wins over Washington State and Washington to extend its winning streak to eight? High. 🎢 📈
  • Losses to Arizona State and top 10 Arizona on the Utes’ first Pac-12 road trip? Low. 🎢 📉
  • Beating UCLA by 46, Utah’s largest margin of victory over a conference opponent in the Pac-12 era? Big high. 🎢 📈 📈
  • Losing at Stanford three days later, with two starters out the majority of the game due to injury? Low. 🎢 📉
  • Wins at home over Oregon State and Oregon, the latter of which broke an 11-game losing streak to the Ducks? Even bigger high. 🎢 📈 📈 📈
  • Days later, blowout losses at Washington State and Washington? Even bigger low. 🎢 📉 📉 📉

That sets Utah up for the second half of Pac-12 action looking for some solutions with a critical three-game home stretch followed by playing five of their final seven regular-season games away from the Huntsman Center.

Up first is a matchup with Colorado on Saturday (3 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Network), a team that currently sits just a half-game out of the lead in the Pac-12 standings.

The Runnin’ Utes (14-7, 5-5 Pac-12) are coming off a “bye week,” their first of two weeks in-conference in which they have only one game, and it comes at a good time with the state of the roster.

“It hopefully gives some of our guys more time to heal and recover. It gives us time on the floor to teach, to correct, to hone in to what we’re trying to do,” Utah coach Craig Smith said Thursday.

“I mean, obviously we always try to do that, but we have to overlearn some things because clearly we’re not always getting it done with the consistency that we need to get it done with. We’ve just got to be tougher and tighter with some of the stuff that we’re doing.”

What are the key questions facing this team heading into the back half of conference play? Here’s an in-depth look at three of them.


Utah Utes center Lawson Lovering (34) and UCLA Bruins center Aday Mara (15) compete for the ball at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024.

Utah Utes center Lawson Lovering (34) and UCLA Bruins center Aday Mara (15) compete for the ball at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Can Utah get healthy?

Utah has been without a pair of starters — point guard Rollie Worster and center Lawson Lovering — for five games now, and it’s unclear when they will return.

“They’re both still out. Lawson’s definitely further ahead than Rollie. I don’t anticipate Rollie playing, you know, anytime soon, but we’ll see. That stuff can change. Good athletes are quick healers compared to the rest of us,” Smith said.

While the absence of the two veteran players hurts on both ends of the court, it particularly hurts Utah on defense.

Deivon Smith and Keba Keita have slid into the starting lineup in place of Worster and Lovering, and both players have had strong moments on the court for Utah in recent weeks.

That still leaves Utah trying to shuffle the rotation to find the best fits, though, a less-than-ideal situation this far into the season. Particularly away from home, it’s caused some issues.

Utah’s coach indicated it’s unlikely Lovering will play against Colorado, his former team, but mentioned there are positive signs in his recovery.

“Lawson’s making good progress. I would be surprised if he plays this weekend but you never know how everything works out that way,” Craig Smith said.

“You can start to see like some tangible progress with his recovery, so we’ll just see how this thing plays out. Hopefully we’re going to be able to get him in the not too distant future, but I don’t have an exact timetable at this point.”


AP24028152243657.jpg

Washington center Braxton Meah, right, hits Utah center Keba Keita as they vied for a rebound during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024, in Seattle.

Lindsey Wasson, Associated Press

Will the Utes solve their road issues?

In addition to dealing with injuries, Utah is struggling to find its rhythm away from the Huntsman Center.

The Utes have lost nine straight conference road games dating back to Jan. 28 of last year, and are 0-5 on the road so far in Pac-12 play this season.

Last week’s results against Washington State and Washington were a particularly low point, when Utah lost to the pair by an average of 23.5 points.

It’s been a cacophony of issues, from transition defense to turnovers in the early Pac-12 road games against the Arizona schools to injuries, lack of aggression and half-court defense in the latter games.

“I’ve said it on the record, many times, you gotta eliminate losing to win, and that’s, you know, a short way of saying fundamental basketball,” Craig Smith said. “Our teams have always been very fundamental and this team, I don’t think is any different, but let’s be real here, too. We’ve been thrown some curveballs here.

“The day of the Stanford game we find out Rollie is not going to play and Lawson gets hurt three minutes into the game. Nobody wants to hear about injuries, I understand that, but it does have an effect on your team.”

“In our drill work and in our scheme, we’re really trying to really dial it back and try to simplify because I think with some of these guys that haven’t played a lot of minutes and then some of these guys that don’t have a lot of experience in our system, I just think we’ve had to take a step back and simplify.” — Utah coach Craig Smith

One thing is for certain — the Utes need to find their toughness away from the Huntsman Center.

They did that in their lone true road game in nonconference play, a 78-71 win at Saint Mary’s in late November, a victory that continues to be bolstered by the fact the Gaels remain unbeaten in West Coast Conference play and are currently No. 21 in the NET rankings.

Back then, though, this Utah team had a different feel to it.

Some extra practice time this week has enabled the Utes’ coaching staff to emphasize a tough mentality with this group.

“In our drill work and in our scheme, we’re really trying to really dial it back and try to simplify because I think with some of these guys that haven’t played a lot of minutes and then some of these guys that don’t have a lot of experience in our system, I just think we’ve had to take a step back and simplify,” Smith said.

“When you do that, hopefully your legs speed up, your anticipation speeds up, and you’re not overthinking while you’re on the floor, and hopefully that’ll lead to more toughness and more physicality with what we’re doing.”


merlin_3015870.jpg

Utah Utes center, Branden Carlson (35) looks to pass the ball while blocked by Oregon Ducks guard, Jadrian Tracey (22) at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Jan. 21, 2024. The Utes won 80-77.

Marielle Scott, Deseret News

What kind of finish does Utah need to find itself in the NCAA Tournament?

The numbers are still favoring the Utes to snap their NCAA Tournament drought, though that projection has slipped a bit over the past couple of weeks.

Utah is No. 35 in the all-important NET rankings right now, third-highest among Pac-12 schools, and Team Rankings currently has Utah with 79% odds of making the Tournament.

In the NCAA’s quad system, Utah has a 3-5 record vs. Quad 1 competition, 3-2 vs. Quad 2 and is a combined 8-0 against Quads 3 and 4 opponents heading into this weekend.

There are no bad losses on the schedule, but the missed opportunities are starting to pile up, with Colorado (No. 31 in the NET), Arizona (No. 3) and Arizona State (No. 120) up next as part of a three-game home stand.

Arizona is the only ranked team in the Pac-12, and there isn’t a high probability for more than three teams, or maybe four if things go well over the next month, making the NCAA tournament from the league this year.

Utah, even with being seventh in the Pac-12 standings right now, is routinely seen as the league’s second-best team in terms of NCAA Tournament seeding from major bracketologists in their most recent projections, though schools such as Colorado and Washington State aren’t far behind.

Three of their nonconference wins — vs. BYU, at Saint Mary’s and vs. Wake Forest at the Charleston Classic — continue to bolster the Utes’ NCAA resume, as all three are looking like NCAA Tournament teams.

There’s also a competitiveness to the Pac-12 this season — 2.5 games separate the top 10 teams in the league standings. While securing a road win has come at a premium league-wide, there is no team that looks unbeatable, not even the Wildcats.

“The league is super competitive. There’s just there’s a ton of parity this year, top to bottom,” Craig Smith said.

“I mean, you look at Oregon State on their road trip to our place and Colorado, the scores and the discrepancy and then they come back and sweep the Arizona schools at home. That’s a small microcosm of of our league this year.”

That all sets up an important question: what kind of finish would Utah need to stay in the NCAA Tournament hunt?

Surely, the Utes would need a road victory or two, as well as staying unbeaten at home — not an easy feat with Colorado and Arizona visiting the Huntsman Center in the next week.

Could a winning record over the next 10 games — even at 6-4 — and anything better than a Day 1 exit at next month’s Pac-12 tournament be enough to keep Utah in the hunt for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid?

“I think I saw on one of the (game) broadcasts, the road teams have won 22% of the time in league play. ... Especially this year, winning on the road has been incredibly difficult,” Craig Smith said.

“Just watching the whole league now — I’ve seen everybody play — there’s just a lot of really good teams and there’s a lot of really good players.”

Utah Utes head coach Craig Smith talks to the team 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.

Utah Utes head coach Craig Smith talks to the team 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