For the first time in six years, Utah basketball hit the 20-win plateau during the 2023-24 season.

The Runnin’ Utes also made a run in a national postseason tournament, reaching the NIT semifinals.

“Nobody is going to have more goals than me for greatness. I’ve always said, bring on the competition. I believe in that firmly. And now we are going into the Big 12, which, five of the past six years, has been ranked the No. 1 league on the men’s basketball side.”

—  Utah basketball coach Craig Smith

Those weren’t the ultimate hopes for Utah this season — the Utes had aspirations of making a return to the NCAA Tournament — but there was still tangible progress made by the program.

Utah’s 22 victories marked a five-win improvement over the previous season — the Utes won 11 games and 17 in Craig Smith’s first two years as head coach before breaking through the 20-win barrier.

Not coincidentally, Utah’s first 20-win season in six years also resulted in the team’s first postseason play in the same amount of time. The Utes played some of their best basketball during their surprise run through the NIT.

Utah also ended the year in the top 50 of the NET rankings, at No. 48. That included wins over NCAA Tournament teams BYU, Saint Mary’s and Colorado, three programs that finished the season in the NET’s top 25.

How will that help the Utes as they prepare to jump from the Pac-12 to the Big 12 next season?

“I’m excited. We have a rich tradition of excellence at the University of Utah. That’s why I wanted to come here,” Smith said just minutes after the team’s season came to an end after a loss to Indiana State in the NIT semifinals.

“Nobody is going to have more goals than me for greatness. I’ve always said, bring on the competition. I believe in that firmly. And now we are going into the Big 12, which, five of the past six years, has been ranked the No. 1 league on the men’s basketball side.”

Utah Utes guard Gabe Madsen (55) shoots the ball with Brigham Young Cougars guard Trey Stewart (1) jumping to try and block during a men’s basketball game at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

What stood out

At one point in the year, Utah looked primed to jump into the top-25 rankings and was projected to make the NCAA Tournament.

The Utes went on an eight-game winning streak from late November through all of December and were 11-2 when the calendar flipped to 2024.

That included road wins at Saint Mary’s, a home victory over rival BYU and a pair of victories over Washington State and Washington to start Pac-12 play.

Utah also had an early-season win over Wake Forest on a neutral court that bolstered its NCAA resume.

The team’s ultimate undoing was its inability to win on the road — the Runnin’ Utes went 2-9 in true road contests as they finished 9-11 in Pac-12 regular-season play. That was a step down from the previous season, when Utah was 10-10 in league action.

The Utes had some injury issues hit early in Pac-12 play — Rollie Worster was lost for the season after just five league games, while Lawson Lovering missed a handful of contests in January.

That added to a tough run through Utah’s final season in the Pac-12, one where the Utes had chances to break through — the team even had a shot at a top-four finish in the league going into the season’s final week — but came up short.

A loss at last-place Oregon State during the final week of the regular season effectively dashed any hopes of earning an NCAA at-large berth.

Utah’s early-season run, though, had several highlight moments, ones that helped put Utah in a position to make the NIT and finish the year with some momentum and a 22-15 record.

Nothing stood out more than the 73-69 victory over then-No. 14 BYU, a historic win where the Utes were the aggressor and handed the Cougars their first loss of the season.

“We want this Huntsman magic back, because this place is an elite home court when we have it packed like that,” Smith said after the win in front of a sellout crowd.

Utah delivered several big wins at the Huntsman Center this season while going 17-2 at home.

Among them was a 22-point victory over Washington State, an eventual top-25 team, snapping an 11-game losing streak to Oregon, blowing out UCLA by a record 46 points and fending off another NCAA Tournament-bound team, Colorado.

The Utes also swept the Bruins, beating UCLA in Los Angeles on a Branden Carlson game-winning putback for their lone Pac-12 road win of the year.

“I am proud of this team, how we kept fighting. I think over the last six, seven years, the most wins this program had is 18 or 19. So we made a big jump that way,” Smith said.

Utah Utes guard Deivon Smith (5) shoots during the NIT quarterfinal game against Virginia Commonwealth in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

The NIT run

The story of Utah’s season wouldn’t be complete without talking about the Utes’ run through the NIT.

“I think it’s a pretty special team. I know I say it in all the media, that this is one of the best teams I’ve ever been on and this last postseason stretch really showed like the brotherhood we have and the chemistry we had later on in the season.”

—  Utah guard Deivon Smith

They ended up with a favorable No. 2 seed in the tournament, which played a big role in Utah playing its first three games in the NIT at the Huntsman.

Following an 84-75 win over UC Irvine, the Utes beat Iowa 91-82 to reach the quarterfinals. Utah then topped VCU 74-54 to advance to the NIT semifinals at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

That’s where the season ended, as Indiana State — with the hometown crowd traveling 75 miles up the road — beat the Utes 100-90.

The Utes looked about as good as they did all year through much of the NIT run.

“These guys really galvanized and I thought we showed great improvement the last six weeks of the season,” Smith said. “There’s always highs and we had hard times, but I’m proud of how we fought and stayed together and competed hard.”

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Deivon Smith had back-to-back triple-doubles in the wins over Iowa and VCU. Gabe Madsen scored a career-high 31 against the Hawkeyes and hit 13 3-pointers in a two-game span. Carlson was vintage Carlson while averaging 16.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in four NIT games.

“I think it’s a pretty special team. I know I say it in all the media, that this is one of the best teams I’ve ever been on and this last postseason stretch really showed like the brotherhood we have and the chemistry we had later on in the season,” Deivon Smith said.

Utah center Branden Carlson (35) shoots against UCLA during game, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024, in Los Angeles. | Eric Thayer, AP

Who’s leaving?

The biggest challenge for Smith will be finding a way to replace Carlson, the fifth-year center from South Jordan who finishes his collegiate career with his name all over the Utah record books.

It will be no small task.

Carlson leaves the U. as the school’s all-time leader in blocks (240) and had 1,874 career points, 839 rebounds and 169 assists.

He averaged 17.0 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks as a senior.

“I’m really proud of this team and the things we’ve overcome and what we have accomplished and where we got,” Carlson said after his college career ended in Hinkle Fieldhouse. “I’m just proud of these guys. I’m just very happy to be a part of this team.”

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Guard Cole Bajema also has exhausted his NCAA eligibility.

He played one season at Utah after transferring from Michigan and started every game for the Utes while averaging 9.0 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.0 assists per game.

Bajema made 66 3-pointers on the year, second-best on the team, and scored a career-high 22 points in a Pac-12 tournament win over Arizona State.

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Also gone is Worster, who entered his name into the transfer portal.

The point guard spent the past three seasons at Utah after transferring from Utah State.

Worster averaged 9.9 points, 5.5 assists and 4.9 rebounds this season before a foot injury sidelined Utah’s best defender.

Worster still has one year of eligibility remaining.

Utah Utes center Keba Keita (13) shoots the ball against Virginia Commonwealth during the NIT quarterfinal game at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

What’s the outlook for next season?

There could be a strong contingent of returnees if more players don’t enter the portal. That sets Utah up well for its first season in the Big 12.

After missing the season’s first nine games while waiting out the eligibility process, Deivon Smith developed into one of the team’s leaders. That development really kicked into high gear after Worster was sidelined with his injury.

Smith broke the Pac-12 single-season record with five triple-doubles, a record previously held by Jason Kidd. He averaged 13.3 points, 7.1 assists and 6.3 rebounds per game this season and finished the year with a career-high 28 points in the game against Indiana State.

“You could see his confidence on the offensive side specifically is really getting better as he gets accustomed to playing that position, and you could see it in practice,” Craig Smith said about his point guard after the game against the Sycamores. “He’s a dynamic player without question.”

Like Deivon Smith, Madsen has another year of eligibility thanks to a free COVID-19 year.

He has been a standout shooter since joining the Utes three years ago as a transfer from Cincinnati. That continued again this season, when Madsen averaged 13.6 points per game while shooting 43.6% from the field and 38.6% from 3-point range.

He finished the season with 105 made 3-pointers, a school record.

Forward Ben Carlson, another valuable role player who was one of the first off the bench each game, also has one year of eligibility remaining.

At center, Lovering returns after starting 24 games in his first season with the Utes after transferring from Colorado. Keba Keita showed further development as a sophomore and had 38 blocks on the year while averaging 8.3 points and 5.4 rebounds.

Guard Hunter Erickson, another player with a year of eligibility remaining, came on strong at season’s end, averaging 9.5 points over the Utes’ final six games, while wing Jake Wahlin earned some valuable minutes midseason in his first year after a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Sophomore guard Luka Tarlac also came off the bench, though his minutes waned as the season wore on.

The Utes missed not having guard Wilguens Jr. Exacte. He redshirted the season due to injury and was expected to play a big role in his sophomore year, though he should step into a key role next year as Utah transitions to Big 12 play.

Utah’s two high school signees this recruiting cycle — Alta’s Jaxon Johnson and Layton’s David Katoa — will be heading on missions for the Church of Jesus Christ.

“Now we are getting back to the recruiting trail; obviously we’ve been doing that for a while. Got to keep gaining momentum and keep pushing forward.”

—  Utah coach Craig Smith

The Utes have already cashed in on a newcomer: Keanu Dawes committed to Utah out of the transfer portal over the weekend.

Dawes is a 6-foot-9 power forward who averaged 6.6 points and 4.1 rebounds while starting 23 games during one season at Rice. He’ll add depth to the frontcourt, with the potential for a starring role in his sophomore season.

That leaves three scholarship spots open at this point, with the potential to add more from the transfer portal.

“We have work to do,” Craig Smith said after the final game of the season. “... We have been watching a lot but you know we got some work to get done. If anybody tells you they know who is coming back, who is going, you have an idea, but I don’t know if you totally know.

“Now we are getting back to the recruiting trail; obviously we’ve been doing that for a while. Got to keep gaining momentum and keep pushing forward.”

Utah Utes head coach Craig Smith hugs center Branden Carlson (35) after Utah lost an NIT semifinal basketball game against the Indiana State Sycamores at the Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on Tuesday, April 2, 2024. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News