Utah basketball: Craig Smith attempting to show weaknesses into strengths
University of Utah males’s basketball followers who need a public declaration from second-year head coach Craig Smith that the Runnin’ Utes might be higher within the upcoming season than they have been final yr should not going to get it.
Not in the course of May, anyway.
In a wide-ranging dialogue final week with reporters who cowl the sagging program, Smith declined to place a selected date on the Utes’ return to glory, saying solely that the expectation stays the identical as when he bought the job a bit greater than a yr in the past.
“Every year our expectation is to make the NCAA Tournament, and that’s our goal,” he mentioned in response to a freelancertamal query a few attainable timeframe for fulfillment. “That is what we strive to do, and then win when we get there.”
“I am always hesitant to put timelines on things, (because) I think … it can hold people back, and there is no point in doing that.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith on expectations for the 2022-23 season
Despite having rotated applications at Mayville State and South Dakota and guided a Utah State crew picked ninth within the Mountain West to a league title, Smith mentioned he has all the time been hesitant all through his profession to vow success to followers wanting to see a reversal of fortunes. But he’s not fairly able to undertake that outdated Rick Majerus mantra of under-promise and over-deliver, both.
“I am always hesitant to put timelines on things, (because) I think … it can hold people back, and there is no point in doing that.”
There’s little question that this system struggled final yr, after Smith inherited solely 4 returning scholarship gamers and two gamers who averaged greater than 9 minutes per sport from Larry Krystkowiak. Utah went 11-20 final yr, 4-16 in a simply OK Pac-12 convention that didn’t carry out all that nicely within the NCAAs. The Utes dropped 10 straight video games in the course of the season, the longest dropping skid in program historical past.
“So I knew (before the season started) that it could be an uphill battle with some things,” Smith mentioned.
The excellent news for Utah followers is that this system is additional forward this May than it was final May, each when it comes to returning gamers and incoming prospects, Smith mentioned.
“We have some continuity coming back, some guys who played a lot of minutes for us last year,” Smith mentioned. “I still believe in my core, and in my heart, that we can build a program here, sustained for longevity, although that certainly is getting harder and harder in a lot of respects. So you just gotta adapt and adjust.”
Obviously, constructing a program within the age of the switch portal and free one-time transfers with out the lack of fast eligibility is what makes the duty tougher.
Smith has already skilled that, as guards David Jenkins Jr. and Both Gach and massive males Lahat Thioune and Riley Battin have hit the switch portal. Center Dusan Mahorcic was booted midseason, whereas walk-ons Jack Jamele and Harrison Creer are additionally shifting on.
The largest loss might be Gach, who has entered his title within the 2022 NBA draft. The two-time Ute (he performed at Minnesota in between stints in Salt Lake City) was wildly inconsistent, nevertheless.
“I think every year is a new year,” Smith mentioned. “Sometimes you just kinda catch fire. And momentum is an amazing thing. You can look really bad for three or four games, and all of a sudden you catch fire. Sometimes it goes the other way on you. You just never know how it is going to go.”
Some acquainted faces return
Unlike after the 2020-21 season, when the Utes went 12-13 (8-11 in Pac-12) and Krystkowiak misplaced his job, the crew’s nucleus is returning this season, led by second-team All-Pac-12 performer Branden Carlson (who averaged 13.6 factors and 6.0 rebounds) and main rebounder Marco Anthony (8.7 factors and seven.1 rebounds).
“Branden being an all-league guy who has been part of the league for three years (is big),” Smith mentioned. “Marco, I thought, had a good year. I know he wants more and can be better.”
Starting level guard Rollie Worster (7.7 ppg.), a few excellent rising sophomores, Lazar Stefanovic and Gabe Madsen, and glue guys Jaxon Brenchley and Eli Ballstaedt (a walk-on) have additionally mentioned they’re coming again. Smith mentioned junior school switch Bostyn Holt’s rehab from an early season knee harm final yr is coming alongside nicely.
“We are going to have a much different team. I love the guys coming back,” Smith mentioned. “They have done a great job in the weight room. They are very determined. And I am not saying that lightly. The guys have been working and putting the time in, and not just spending time, but investing time.”
He mentioned each returning participant has made “some very noticeable changes physically” with the assistance of Utah’s power and conditioning employees.
New faces, new optimism
One optimistic about all of the departures is that they provide Smith an opportunity to rebuild his roster in the best way he likes. He wished extra athleticism, toughness and physicality, and it seems he has gotten it.
Utah has introduced the addition of three gamers for the reason that season ended — two excessive schoolers and an acquisition from the switch portal. At least three different gamers have mentioned by way of social media posts that they’re heading Utah’s approach.
Cincinnati switch Mike Saunders Jr. is a 6-foot guard who is greater than Smith thought he was.
“He is a really strong, athletic, explosive bulldog,” Smith mentioned of the previous Wasatch Academy product. “So we need him to come in here right away and make a big-time impact for us as a playmaking guard.”
Smith mentioned Saunders performed about 20 minutes a sport for the Bearcats, and regarded particularly good in opposition to a few of the higher groups on the schedule similar to Illinois and Houston.
Smith spoke extensively about prep stars Keba Keitaand Will Exacte after their signings have been made official in April.
Keita, a 6-8 heart from Wasatch Academy, “is stuck together,” Smith mentioned. “I mean, he is a brick house. … He is tenacious and tough. He is just ferocious in everything that he does. He is so explosive.”
Exacte, a 6-6 guard from Montreal, was Utah’s first signee for this yr’s class and is constructed like Anthony, the returning starter.
“When those two guys stand side by side, they almost look like twins,” Smith mentioned. “So Wilguens is a physical specimen. He is a playmaking guard. He is a guy that can play in a lot of different spots, a very talented guy that can get to the rim and make plays off the bounce.”
Wisconsin Badgers ahead Ben Carlson introduced on April 30 he’s transferring to Utah. Recently graduated BYU ahead Gavin Baxter has mentioned he’ll be part of the U. as a walk-on in 2022-23, and Serbian ahead Luka Tarlac is reportedly headed to Utah as nicely, per numerous stories.
“I think as a whole, all of them love to be in the gym. And that is not just lip service,” Smith mentioned. “They truly love to be in the gym and working out. They love the game. They love to compete. They are all physical. They play with a level of physicality we need.”
About final yr
Even although Utah’s season ended two months in the past — with an 82-70 loss to Washington within the Pac-12 match — reminiscences are nonetheless recent in Smith’s thoughts. He has additionally had time to overview Year 1 again and again, in an try and determine areas of enchancment.
Bottom line, he mentioned, is that the Utes weren’t bodily sufficient to win extra video games, particularly within the Pac-12. They additionally lacked depth. After a 5-0 begin, accidents took their toll.
“When you look at our team, the year didn’t go the way we wanted it to last year, and we all know that. But when you really look we lacked physicality, up and down the lineup,” Smith mentioned. “We (also) lacked toughness and athleticism.”
He believes the brand new recruits and transfers will clear up quite a lot of these points.
“These guys bring a lot of that to the table (in that regard). These guys love to lift. They love to work out and condition. They want to be the best that they can be. They love playing as hard as they can, all the time. And when you have guys like that in your program, it brings out the best in everybody. Competition is an amazing thing.”
Smith mentioned his profitable groups have regarded extra like a soccer crew, and different coaches have instructed him as a lot.
“And I am like, ‘Yeah, that is why we are good, right?’” Smith mentioned. “We didn’t always look like a football team last year. And that’s OK. It is what it is. That’s just where we were at in the stage of our program, and so I think we have really improved our athleticism, our physicality, our toughness. There are going to be some growing pains. We are going to be a fairly young team. But I am very, very excited with these guys coming in, and the guys that are coming back.”
Who’s on the schedule?
The Utes gained seven of their 10 nonconference video games final season, dropping to then-No. 18 BYU, TCU and Missouri. The rematch with BYU is Dec. 17, 2022, in Provo.
For a multiteam occasion the Utes can even play within the 2022 Rocket Mortgage Fort Myers Tip-Off in Florida earlier than Thanksgiving, Nov. 21 and 23. The different groups within the Beach Division are Georgia Tech, Marquette and Mississippi State. Matchups and TV instances haven’t been introduced.
“So we are a lot further along today than we were last year at this time,” Smith mentioned of the 2022-23 slate, including that just one slot stays to be stuffed. “When your record is not very good, scheduling becomes a little bit easier.”
Runnin’ Utes basketball in 2022-23
Key returners: G Marco Anthony, G Jaxon Brenchley, G Lazar Stefanovic, G Rollie Worster, C Branden Carlson, G Gabe Madsen, G Eli Ballstaedt (walk-on), F Bostyn Holt.
Key losses: G David Jenkins Jr., C Lahat Thioune, G Both Gach, F Riley Battin, C Dusan Mahorcic.
Key newcomers: G Mike Saunders Jr., G Wilguens Exacte Jr., C Keba Keita, F Ben Carlson, F Luka Tarlac, F Gavin Baxter (walk-on).