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From Beyond The Arc: Utah MBB 2023 Preview

The Utes will have a difficult season if they cannot score

NCAA Basketball: Pac-12 Media Day Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Utah Utes enter their third season under head coach Craig Smith. Smith became the head coach when Utah fired former head coach Larry Krystkowiak, who had led the Utes to the postseason five years in a row (2014-18), but had come up short afterwards.

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Utah
Craig Smtih
Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

Smith had a rough first season, what with attrition and transfers, and Utah finished only 11-20, 4-16 Pac-12 (11th). The Utes improved last season to 17-15, 10-10 Pac-12 (7th). They probably felt they could have finished better had it not been for the injuries of two key starters in February: Gabe Madsen and Rollie Worster. The bench was not up to the task of picking up the production of their fallen starters, and instead of finishing in possibly the top 13 of the conference rankings, the Utes fell to the middle, and out of any postseason conversation. Also, it will come as no surprise that Utah is tougher at home than on the road - They won about 70% of their games at home, but only 36% of their away games and 25% of neutral site games.

A big reason for Utah’s improvement last season over the 2021-22 season was defense. In an interview with Deseret News last month, coach Smith pointed out that “We were 10th in the country in effective field goal percentage defense. We were 19th in the country in 3-point field goal percentage defense, and we were top 25 in the country in not fouling.”

The team numbers from last season generally bear out what the coach is discussing. Utah shot 42.7% as a team and held opponents to 39.7% shooting. They held the opposition to a little over 30% shooting from distance. They also averaged 4.2 more rebounds per game than their opponents.

Six players were the primary starters for Utah and were responsible for the vast majority of the minutes and production of last year’s team.

NCAA Basketball: Utah at Colorado
#35 Branden Carlson
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

7-0 Sr. C Branden Carlson was the scoring leader with 16.4 PPG on 29.1 MPG of playing. He averaged 49.6% from the field, including a respectable 33.1% (41/124) from distance. Carlson shot - and made - more FTs than anyone else on the team and was 77.4% at the line. It should also come as no surprise that he blocked nearly half of Utah’s 129 blocks last season.

6-6 Jr. G Gabe Madsen averaged 11.6 PPG and 28.6 MPG. He shot 35.7%, including 36.9% on the long ball, and 78.7% from the line.

6-7 So. G Lazar Stefanovic played all 32 games but only started in 15. He averaged 10.3 PPG and 28.3 MPG. Stefanovic shot 37.1%, including 35.9% from distance, and 86.8% from the line.

6-6 Grad. G Marco Anthony averaged 9.7 PPG on 31.2 MPG, shooting 45.2% (33.3% on threes), and only 62.4% from the charity stripe. He was only behind Carlson in average rebounds per game.

Syndication: Arizona Republic
#25 Rollie Worster
Joe Rondone/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

6-4 Jr. G Rollie Worster was the primary PG for the Utes last season, with far and away the most assists on the team. He shot 41.8%, and is a poor shooter from beyond the arc, only mustering 27.8% on 22/79 shooting. He is much better when he’s fouled, and shoots 81.1% at the line.

6-9 Jr. F Ben Carlson was the only player that played and started all 32 games last season. He only averaged 19.2 MPG, shooting 46.8% (30.4% from range), and it was good that he didn’t find himself often at the line, because his FT shooting is a horrific 39.4% (14/46).

Utah returns eight of the 16 players from last season, including four of their six primary starters. Branden Carlson explored his NBA draft options but decided to return for his fifth year instead. Joining him will be Gabe Madsen, Rollie Worster, and Ben Carlson.

The Utes also return two bench players that played nearly every game, but saw significantly fewer minutes (even though they easily played more games and minutes than the rest of the bench). 6-6 S. G Wilguens Jr. Exacte played all 32 games (started two) and averaged 11.8 MPG. 6-8 So. C Keba Keita played in 31 games and averaged 10.5 MPG. Also returning are 6-7 So. G Luka Tarlac and 6-1 Jr. G Brandon Haddock.

Of the remaining starters, Marco Anthony graduated and Lazar Stefanovic transferred to UCLA.

Jaxon Brenchley transferred to Denver, Bostyn Holt transferred to South Dakota, and Mike Saunders, Jr. transferred to McNeese State. Hunter Mecum entered the transfer portal and was not picked up by another school.

Smith brought in five freshmen in the 2023 class.

Jayden Teat is a 6-1 G from Sacramento, CA. He is the nephew of Darius Wright, who played at Oregon from 1998-2000.

Karahan Efeoglu is a 6-7 F from Istanbul, Turkey. Sure, the video is an uncontested three, but it’s a made shot at the buzzer.

Jake Wahlin is a 3* 6-10 F, a home product from Provo, UT.

6-7 F Ayomide Bamisile is from Lagos, Nigeria, and played prep ball in Florida.

Jerry Huang is a 6-2 G from Taipei, Taiwan. He played high school ball at Utah’s Wasatch Academy.

Utah also brought in a handful of portal transfers to bring in some height and veteran leadership.

6-3 Sr. G Hunter Erickson is a JUCO transfer from Salt Lake Community College. In his lone season with SLCC, he averaged 12.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 5.4 assists with 43 steals. He saw limited action at BYU in his freshman and sophomore seasons.

Lawson Lovering in a 7-1 Jr. C transfer from Colorado. He started in all 34 games for the Buffaloes, and while he shot 55.4%, he only averaged 4.9 PPG and 4.7 RPG. Regardless, his numbers improved significantly over his freshman year, so can he continue the improvement?

Cole Bajema is a 6-7 Gr. G transfer from Washington. He started 31 of 32 games for the Huskies. Bajema scored 8.8 PPG in 29.7 MPG, and shot 37.1% (35.5% from distance), and 85.1% from the line.

Deivon Smith is a 6-1 Sr. G transfer from Georgia Tech. In his junior year with the Yellow Jackets he started in 13 of the 23 games he played. Smith average 24.6 MPG, 7.7 PPG, and 5.7 RPG. He shot 38% from the field (28% from distance), and 45% from the line.

The Utah Utes were picked last season to be 11th in the Pac-12. Even though they felt they could have finished better, ending up 7th was probably an overachievement. The good news is that they bring back a known quantity - four of their six best players from last season. The bad news is that what they have brought in is either not a known quantity, or is an underwhelming quantity.

For Utah to improve upon last season, they have to improve on offense. It’s doubtful that there will be the kind of improvement they might wish for, but we’ll see. What I don’t foresee is the media ranking this team much above their 11th ranking from last year - if at all.