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New Utah basketball coach Craig Smith has not been afraid to recruit junior college players. Could SLCC help that cause in the future?

Smith recruited six JuCo prospects to Utah State between the 2019 and 2020 seasons

New University of Utah men's basketball coach Craig Smith tours the Huntsman Basketball Facility on March 27, 2021

Introduced in 2018 as a way to streamline the process of student-athletes intending to move from one school to another, the NCAA Transfer Portal has turned into a focal point of offseason recruiting efforts around the country.

That includes the University of Utah, which, as of Wednesday morning, had Alfonso Plummer, Jordan Kellier, Ian Martinez, and Norbert Thelissen in the portal. Lahat Thioune and Riley Battin initially hit the portal, but have since decided to return to play for first-year head coach Craig Smith. Timmy Allen had been one of the nation’s top available portal entrants, but the All-Pac-12 junior forward committed to Texas on Tuesday evening.

Conversely, since Smith arrived in Salt Lake City on March 27, he has gained commitments out of the portal from Cincinnati freshman guard Gabe Madsen and high-scoring UNLV junior David Jenkins.

The transfer portal has been and will continue to be the primary focus of recruiting, but it is not the only available route to find players, nor is it the only thing new Utah head coach Craig Smith is going to focus on.

“I’ve never been into the labeling, JUCOs, transfers, but I understand why people do that,” Smith told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this month. “I’ve always believed in, you look at your roster, you look at the holes that you have, how do you fill that gap? Is it a freshman and can they be ready to play early? Is the freshman going to be more of a development guy? Does this JuCo kid make sense where he can fill a gap? Is he a good player?”

As Smith and his staff continue the work of cobbling together their 2021-22 roster, it is worth noting that Smith’s recent recruiting history includes a willingness to take on junior college prospects, something not every staff wants to do.

In his first two seasons as the head coach at Utah State, Smith brought in three junior college recruits in 2019 and three more in 2020. Of those six players over that time period, Alphonso Anderson stands out as the big success story.

After taking a redshirt at Montana State, Anderson spent one successful season at North Idaho College, which he parlayed into a scholarship offer from Smith in Logan. In two seasons, Anderson played in 63 games, averaging 7.5 points in 17.2 minutes per contest as the Aggies earned NCAA Tournament bids in 2020 and 2021. In staying with the theme of the times, Anderson is currently in the transfer portal.

The point, though, is that a player like Anderson helped Utah State immediately after coming up from a 31-win JuCo program and North Idaho. Smith hit pay dirt there, and while not all the JuCo kids he brought to Logan fully panned out, he is not afraid to tap on that possibility again going forward.

“I’ve always looked at it as, what does that individual bring?” Smith said. “Do they have a great heart? Can they have success in Salt Lake City and in our conference, and do they fit all the things that we look at? Regardless of transfer, graduate transfer, junior college transfer, high school kid, if it makes sense, we’re going after them.”

As far junior college recruiting goes, Smith has a national-level contender and one of the region’s elite programs, Salt Lake Community College, a mere 20 minutes from his office at the Huntsman Basketball Facility.

Second-year Bruins head coach Kyle Taylor will acknowledge that he does not have a player on his roster good enough for Utah to be recruiting. Smith and his assistant coaches, DeMarlo Slocum and Eric Peterson, also know that, but SLCC regularly churns out Division I prospects and will do so again.

“They all reached out within the first couple of days, I’m not even sure Eric was officially hired yet when he texted me, that’s how on top of it he was,” Taylor told The Salt Lake Tribune. “We don’t have anybody good enough this year. They know that, but reaching out is good. They believe they need to have a relationship with SLCC.”

Utah, or any other Division I program trying to recruit junior college players continues to be made difficult by the fact the recruiting calendar has been in a dead period since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic more than 13 months ago.

That means, when 12th-seeded SLCC takes the floor in Hutchinson, Kan., for the first round of the NJCAA Tournament Monday night against No. 21 seed South Georgia State, Division I coaches will not be in attendance. Division II, Division III and NAIA coaches can be present, but NJCAAs, colloquially referred to as “Hutch,” is traditionally a prime recruiting opportunity for those players.

On one hand, it is less of a prime opportunity with D-I staffs not allowed in the building. On the other hand, the fact the event has been pushed back to late-April because of COVID-19 makes it the last college basketball event of the season, meaning it presumably gains more attention.

“I think having it this late is a huge advantage and honestly, I think it’s great because junior college players have been disadvantaged this season in multiple ways,” Taylor said. “COVID has forced Division-I into a dead period, so there’s been less recruiting opportunities. A lot of the recruiting focus has gone to the portal anyway, and junior colleges didn’t start playing until January, so we missed two months of what the season would normally be.

“Getting to Hutch, the players and teams that made it, it gives those players and those programs an opportunity to showcase themselves.”

A year after being awarded the No. 4 seed for NJCAAs, only to have the event canceled during the infancy of the pandemic, the Bruins (20-4) fell in the Region 18 championship game on April 10 vs. College of Southern Idaho, but received one of eight at-large selections for Hutch the following day.

The SLCC-South Georgia State winner advances to face No. 5 seed and perennial NJCAA title contender South Plains College (Texas) in a round of 16 contest Wednesday afternoon.

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