November 23, Fort Myers, FL
Head Coach: Craig Smith (11-18 at Utah, 236-126 overall)
Three-Year NET Average: 94.0
Three-Year kenpom Average: 93.3
Projected 2022-23 T-Rank: 119
Projected Starters: PG Rollie Worster (6'4" Jr), SG Marco Anthony (6'5" RS Sr), SF Gabe Madsen (6'6" Jr), PF Lazar Stefanovic (6'7" So), C Branden Carlson (7'0" Sr)
Craig Smith is likely happy to put his first season in Salt Lake City behind him. While their 8-4 start was decent, the most impressive victory was over Fresno State and it was followed by a 10-game losing streak. They managed to avoid the Pac-12 basement due to Oregon State, but they were the only Pac-12 team to lose to the Beavers and they will certainly want to improve on their dismal start to the Smith era.
This Utah team does have some continuity from last year, returning four starters. Rollie Worster and Marco Anthony came with Smith from Utah State. While both took slight steps back in terms of scoring, they also had their most efficient seasons and will continue to run the offense. Lazar Stefanovic and Gabe Madsen both earned starts last year and are the two most prolific returning shooters in terms of threes made. If either of them isn't ready to go, former Badger Ben Carlson joined through the transfer portal and provides some length and experience to the front court. The real man to watch is the big body in the middle, Branden Carlson. He led the Utes in scoring a year ago and has the ability to not just score and clean the glass inside, but can also step out and hit the occasional three. The Utes also have some depth with transfers Mike Saunders (Cincinnati) and Gavin Baxter (BYU) giving Smith options while international freshmen Wilguens Exacte and Luka Tarlac provide some length.
In terms of what to expect, the Utes should be better on offense than last year's outfit. Smith's attack features a heavy dose of motion, cutting, and screening. His teams are consistently among the nation's best in assist rate. It's truly a team effort and expect there to be a wealth of guys averaging 7-8 points per game or more. They struggled on offense for two primary reasons last year. They simply didn't have shot makers and weren't as aggressive crashing the glass as his Utah State teams. Defensively, he prefers a system similar to Tony Bennett's pack line at Virginia. He has a number of solid man-to-man defenders well-versed in the system (Anthony spent two years at Virginia before joining Smith at USU) and the goal is to clog the middle and protect the paint. It worked better at Utah State because he had an elite shot blocker in Neemias Queta. Thus far, Branden Carlson hasn't proven as adept at that and as a team their rebounding came up short. It's possible Smith could change things up if it doesn't work this year; he radically changed from a driving, isolation offense at South Dakota to his motion/ball-movement heavy Utah State approach. At the moment, however, it looks like he might need to have a few more recruiting wins and time to develop before his roster can execute what he wants to do.
Returning five major rotation players and bringing in a number of transfers from quality programs should lead to improvement. Smith is a savvy coach who adapts to his roster and last year was the first time his team didn't outperform their preseason kenpom ranking. Getting to the middle of the Pac-12 and NIT mix would be considered a success after last season. The question is if there's enough there to get it done. Branden Carlson is a worthy high-major starter, but it would be a stretch to call him a star. Worster, Anthony, and Stefanovic are all probably fine as a team's fifth offensive option, but those are the options 2-4. The transfers are experienced, but that experience was gained coming off benches of comparable programs. None of these guys look like the types to move the dial individually. If Smith can get them sharing the ball and slowing the pace, maybe they can keep games close enough that someone will take those small steps up, but it looks like the Utes might still be a year or two away from being a truly competitive high-major team.
Marquette Connection: You can't mention Marquette and Utah without immediately thinking of Rick Majerus. After sitting next to Al McGuire for the 1974 Final Four and 1977 Championship, then continuing alongside Hank Raymonds, Majerus became Marquette's head coach in 1983. It was probably a bit too early for him as he never hit his stride here. After a year in the NBA and two at Ball State, Majerus took over Utah. The Utes went to 10 NCAA Tournaments in 15 seasons with Majerus at the helm, highlighted by a Final Four appearance and NCAA runner-up to Kentucky in 1998. After that game, Majerus quipped "When I die, they might as well bury me at the finish line at Churchill Downs so they can run over me again." He was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019, primarily because of his excellent tenure at Utah, where he went 323-95 (.773 winning percentage) and additionally had an Elite Eight and two Sweet Sixteen runs. His finest stretch was from 1994-95 through 1998-99, in which Utah went a stunning 142-26, finishing in the top-20 of the AP Poll every year and the top-10 three times. If Marquette does take on Utah in Fort Myers, expect an in memoriam segment on Rick Majerus, a Marquette champion and Utah legend.
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