Runnin’ Utes basketball: 3 things you need to know about Utah’s victory over UTSA


Runnin’ Utes basketball: 3 things you need to know about Utah’s victory over UTSA

Is it time to for Utah basketball fans to start showing up at the Huntsman Center?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) shows his wingspan against Arizona Wildcats forward Azuolas Tubelis (10) as the University of Utah hosts the Arizona Wildcats in NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022.

The University of Utah men’s basketball team won its fifth straight game, a 91-70 rout of UTSA on Tuesday evening at the Huntsman Center. Here are the takeaways from the win.

Branden Carlson’s aggressiveness

A big knock on the 7-foot fourth-year junior early in his career was his lack of physicality, his lack of aggression, and his lack of being able to absorb contact.Larry Krystkowiak would never come straight out and say these things, but there were absolutely times when the former Utes head coach would make it clear that Carlson needed to get tougher.

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Where do you put the blame for that? Well, in fairness, Carlson didn’t really play a ton of basketball in high school, mostly because former BYU star Yoeli Childswas in his way for a couple of years at Bingham. Carlson played a bunch as a senior, but upon graduation, served a two-year church mission. He came to the University of Utah this season still raw, still very much in need of teaching.

Carlson was behind the 8-ball when he showed up at Utah in 2019 fresh off his mission. It has not happened overnight for him, but you could see signs last season in year one under Craig Smith, and Carlson has continued to look the part of a legitimate, imposing Power Five center.

On Tuesday, that continued. His 27 points came on 10-for-14 shooting to go along with eight rebounds and four blocks in just 24 minutes. All of this came with Carlson taking a bit of a beating underneath, but he hung in there. He rebounded, he chased down a loose ball or two. He was physical on the defensive end, which has become commonplace the last two weeks, and he did not shy away from contact.

That’s the important part, continuing to throw your body in there and be willing to absorb and give out contact. If Carlson keeps doing that, Utah is a lot tougher to deal with underneath.

“He works very hard on his game, he gets in the weight room now, he loves to lift, and he gets that whole picture, which you should in your fourth year,” Smith said. “I love how he gets his nose dirty, he was very aggressive, physical, and to the rim. They were physical, and they were mixing it up and he was taking some blows I thought. He got a couple of and-1s off just being aggressive to the rim and we need that.”

A word or two about where this rotation is going

Utah has played 11 games, which is more than one-third of the regular season. The Utes are healthy, so at this point, there shouldn’t be, nor is there, too much guessing about what the rotation should look like.

It’s Rollie Worster and Gabe Madsen, plus Marco Anthony, Ben Carlson and Branden Carlson. That five has been mostly very solid for Smith since Anthony missed the first three games of the season due to injury.

You’re bringing Lazar Stefanovic and Keba Keita off the bench pretty early. Stefanovic has been an inconsistent shooter, but when he has it going, he has been a big boon for Smith. Regardless, there’s trust in Stefanovic. He is cerebral and he operates in the manner that Smith wants. Keita certainly still has a lot to figure out, but he’s shooting 67.9% from the floor, he’s a rim-to-rim guy, he is often a defensive force in the lane, and as long as he stays within himself, Smith will keep throwing him out there for 12, 14, 16 minutes per game, which is about what we thought coming into the season.

Beyond those seven, you keep throwing Mike Saunders Jr. out there in spurts, partially to spell Worster, who is playing a ton. Wilguens Jr. Exacte is too athletic and physically imposing as a power guard to not keep putting him out there, and if you can get 8-10 minutes quality from Bostyn Holt, it’s a bonus.

You’re looking at nine, maybe 10 on a good night like Tuesday was. Smith has said many times in the past that it gets hard if you try to play too many guys, and an effort has to be made to pair it down to a manageable number.

One key question here is, what are you going to do about Luka Tarlac? The freshman Serbian wing was hurt to start the season, but debuted well on Nov. 14 vs. Idaho State, then played 14 minutes vs. Sam Houston State three nights later. He has played sparingly since, and was 2:08 away from being a DNP vs. UTSA.

Smith is high on Tarlac, but there are only so many minutes to go around.

It’s probably time to start showing up at the Huntsman Center

For almost three years now, there has been a lot of hand-wringing over the fact that Utah curtained off the upper bowl of the 15,000-seat Huntsman Center, turning what was the largest capacity in the Pac-12 into a more intimate 8,500-seat venue.

That has yielded a lot of screaming into the social media void about the 1990s, and Rick Majerus, and Keith Van Horn, and filling the place, and fans hanging from the rafters during the old Late Night Snack in the WAC tip-offs at 10 p.m., and on, and on, and on.

Fine, we get it. Here’s the deal. The basketball program had reached a point several years back under Krystkowiak where, forget what they were announcing as attendance, they weren’t even scanning 8,500 tickets into the building. I’m not making that up, take it from a guy with some real power inside that athletic department.

“It would depend on what we were scanning,” Scott Kull, Utah’s deputy athletic director for external operations, told The Salt Lake Tribune in April 2020 when asked what it would take to open the curtain back up. “We haven’t scanned above 8,500 in a while. I think it would really depend on that, and it would be really hard to make that decision.”

Brass tacks: If Utah had ticket demand at the level where it needed to open the upper bowl, it would. It doesn’t even have the demand to fill the lower bowl, which brings us to the point.

Complaining about things not going well and not showing up as a result only works when the team is bad. You have no room to complain about the state of things when this particular Utah team, at 9-2 overall with a win over Arizona, another Quadrant 1 win at Washington State, and a too-early November/December resume worthy of day-dreaming about the NCAA Tournament, is good. We’re not seeing an NCAA Tournament today, but if we were, the Utes would be in, and they wouldn’t be going to the First Four, either.

The announced attendance on Tuesday was 5,223. That’s tickets distributed, not tickets scanned, which was roughly half that. You can only lean on the snow so much as an excuse. A blizzard, it was not. The average home attendance entering the night was 4,938.

Utah is not back at the Huntsman Center until Jan. 5 vs. Oregon State, although it will play a pseudo-home game on Dec. 21 at Vivint Arena against TCU.

Best-case scenario before Jan. 5: Utah beats BYU, TCU, then sweeps the Bay Area schools to come home 13-2 overall, 4-0 in the Pac-12. The Utes are then creeping towards, if not in the AP Top 25, and there is legitimate national buzz.

Worst-case scenario before Jan. 5: The only win among those four games is Cal on Dec. 29 to open the Bay Area trip. Utah comes home 10-5 with a Quad 3 loss at BYU, a Quad 2 loss at Stanford, and you know what? In spite of all of that, the Utes would still be well-ahead of where anyone thought they would be in year two under Smith.

Either way, it’s probably time to start showing up at the Huntsman Center.


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