Utah's replacement for center Jayce Johnson is a 7-foot-4 returned missionary from Africa who can execute a standing backflip.
That’s a composite character of how Ute basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak plans to staff the position, describing a “three-headed” group of freshmen. The 7-4 Matt Van Komen is a freshman from Pleasant Grove, 7-foot Branden Carlson has enrolled in college after a two-year church mission that followed his Bingham High School gradation and 6-10 Lahat Thioune, from Senegal, sat out last season after breaking his foot in preseason practice.
Carlson fits two of the above descriptions, as player who can do a backflip. He was the starting center for the Red team in last week’s Night with the Utes scrimmage, joining sophomores Timmy Allen, Both Gach and Riley Battin and freshman guard Rylan Jones in what Krystkowiak framed as a likely starting lineup.
He posted nine points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots in 25 minutes. Van Komen also made a good impression while playing for each team, totaling 11 points, eight rebounds and six blocks in a continuing effort to alter Krystkowiak’s initial plans for him to redshirt. Thioune had four points and nine rebounds (six offensive) for the White.
“I think that's just a glimpse of what the three of us can do,” Carlson said.
Upcoming dates for Utah's men's basketball program:
Wednesday • Exhibition game vs. Texas-Tyler, 6:30 p.m.
Nov. 5 • Season opener at Nevada, 8:30 p.m. MST.
Nov. 8 • Home opener vs. Mississippi Valley State, 7 p.m.
Carlson, who got home in late May, grew an inch during his mission to England for The Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints. He joins Van Komen as the 10th and 11th 7-footers in Ute history. Johnson, the ninth such player, transferred to Marquette for his senior year, even though he would have been a returning starter for Utah.
Carlson's post-mission acclimation to basketball was not easy. Asked this week if he ever wondered if his skills would return, he smiled. “I still have that thought,” he said. “It was tough for two months: 'Am I going to get into shape? Am I ever going to get my shot back?'
Four weeks in Utah's official preseason practice, though, he likes his progress and is eager for the season to start with Wednesday's exhibition game vs. Division II opponent Texas-Tyler.
Carlson has come a long way in basketball since averaging only 3.7 points and 2.2 rebounds for Bingham as a junior, when current BYU star Yoeli Childs led the Miners to a Class 6A state championship.
Playing against Childs in practice “was really how I developed so much as a player,” Carlson said. “Going into my junior year, I would say I'd even struggle to be on a [junior college] team right now.”
But he improved by “playing against Yoeli every single day and just getting my butt kicked by him,” Carlson said.
That helps explain how Carlson became a highly ranked recruit during the summer circuit, signing with Utah in November 2016 amid offers from UCLA, Stanford, BYU and other schools. He helped the Miners win another title by averaging 14.1 points and 8.1 rebounds as a senior.
After Carlson posted 18 points, seven rebounds and five blocked shots in a quarterfinal win over Viewmont, former Bingham coach Jake Schroeder said, “Utah got a steal.”
Carlson faced Van Komen’s Pleasant Grove team in the semifinals and was statistically outplayed by the sophomore, but the Miners won. Bingham then beat Lone Peak for the championship.
And here are Carlson and Van Komen, together in Utah’s program. Even as 7-footers, they have a lot of growth ahead.