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In the wake of Craig Smith getting hired at the University of Utah on Saturday morning, I did three radio hits on Monday afternoon. Of those three spots, one question from ESPN700′s Spence Checketts stuck out to me, and the answer isn’t so easy.
I’m paraphrasing here, but Spence asked me, essentially, why are things going to be different under Smith?
Why is Smith going to do better than Ray Giacoletti, who rode Andrew Bogut to a 29-win Sweet 16 season in 2005, then had two unremarkable seasons? Why is Smith going to do better than Jim Boylen, who went to the NCAA Tournament in 2009, then wore out his welcome soon after? Why is Smith going to be better than Larry Krystkowiak, who went to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments in 2015 and 2016, then never returned to the Big Dance?
I don’t know.
I don’t know why Smith is going to be the guy to bring Utah basketball back. I can’t tell you the Utes are going to win the Pac-12 under Smith, I can’t predict that Utah is going to be a regular NCAA Tournament participant. I don’t know any of that, Spence doesn’t know any of that, you don’t know any of that, but here is what I do know.
For better or worse, Smith has earned the opportunity to run a Power Five program because, pretty simply, he has won everywhere else he has been.
Smith coached Mayville State (N.D.) to the NAIA Division II Tournament three times in as many seasons from 2005-07. His next stop, the University of South Dakota, has been to the postseason three times in 13 seasons since turning Division I. Two of those three postseason berths, the 2017 NIT after winning the Summit League regular-season title and the 2018 CBI, belong to Smith.
In three seasons at Utah State, Smith went 74-24, won the Mountain West tournament twice and would have gone to three NCAA Tournaments had the COVID-19 pandemic not canceled last season’s Big Dance. Yes, Smith inherited quality players in Logan, namely Sam Merrill, but he also recruited quality guys, namely Neemias Queta.
This is where Utah is. Utes athletic director Mark Harlan and his inner circle of decision-makers hired a sitting, in-state head coach with a resume that includes a lot of winning. As Jon Wilner of The San Jose Mercury News wisely alluded to over the weekend, if Utah didn’t hire Smith, someone else was going to, potentially another Pac-12 school.
For a lot of reasons, Smith makes a lot of sense and personally, I think this is a good hire. Is he “the guy” for this basketball program?
I genuinely do not know, and neither do you.
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