‘New guy’ Both Gach returns to Utah, but finds a new head coach in Craig Smith

Gach spent his first two seasons at Utah, transferred to Minnesota, and has now returned to Utah as a senior.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Both Gach (11) skies to the rim for the Utes to take the lead in the 2nd half. The University of Utah basketball team was defeated by Oregon, 64-69, Jan. 4, 2020, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center.

Having finished a workout with his teammates one floor below, Both Gach appeared from a set of double doors in the lobby of the University of Utah’s Huntsman Basketball Facility on Wednesday afternoon.

He looked the part of a Ute.

Gach was decked out in black. A black Utes-embroidered shirt with the long sleeves pulled up to his elbow, a pair of black Under Armour practice shorts, a pair of black UA sneakers.

It felt as though the Austin, Minn., native never left, but he had.

After two productive, albeit up-and-down seasons in Salt Lake City, Gach transferred home to the University of Minnesota last spring. When Golden Gophers head coach Richard Pitino was fired in March, Gach hit the transfer portal again in May and seemingly caused the entire Utah fan base to raise its eyebrows by committing to new Utes head coach Craig Smith on June 3.

Gach could be viewed as a new guy, but he isn’t that exactly. Yes, there are new teammates and a mostly-new coaching staff to navigate, but Gach has been at Utah before, been through a Pac-12 schedule twice, a veteran guard who has played quite well for long stretches with the Utes.

“For me, it’s been all positive vibes, great coaching staff, great teammates,” Gach told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Being back in Utah, somewhere I’m obviously used to, it just feels good to be back over here where I started. At first, it was kind of weird, but now it feels like it did when I was first here.”

Recruiting, whether it be out of high school or out of the NCAA Transfer Portal, is an endeavor whose bedrock is and always has been relationships. Gach’s return to Salt Lake City is no different.

During Gach’s first go-around at Utah, his closest relationship on the coaching staff was DeMarlo Slocum, who left after Gach’s freshman season to take an assistant position at UNLV. Upon arrival at Utah in late March, Smith brought Slocum back — a move that was met with significant fanfare, specifically from a recruiting standpoint. When Gach hit the portal, Slocum spearheaded the recruiting effort.

Slocum didn’t exactly need to convince Smith, who also goes back several years with Gach. Smith tried to get Gach when he was the head coach at South Dakota, then again as the head coach at Utah State.

“Third time’s the charm,” Gach said with a smile. “For me, I built the relationships with him and his coaching staff throughout this process. He was always a guy that reached out to me every time he had a chance to. He always told me he believed in me, so I just felt comfortable coming here and playing for them.

“Him and his staff are very high energy, and they always sounded like they had a plan for recruits, players they think can fit in their system. You feel that connection, you feel that vibe when you talk to these guys.”

There is no guarantee Gach, who said a handful of Pac-12 and West Coast schools reached out during this second trip through the portal, will be eligible this winter as a true senior. He has already transferred once, from Utah to Minnesota, so the NCAA’s new one-time transfer waiver that offers immediate eligibility to anyone transferring for the first time does not apply to him. Gach may gain immediate eligibility as a two-time transfer under a different exception, but that is a matter for Utah’s compliance department to deal with in the coming weeks and months.

If Gach is eligible for 2021-22, it is a potential boon, specifically on the defensive end because his size, length, and athleticism will allow him to defend any of the three guard spots. For a roster that, on paper, looks increasingly defensive-minded, Gach’s versatility cannot be overstated, especially with his level of experience.

Where exactly Gach fits in offensively is up for some debate, but he is going to play and he is going to be a factor if he does indeed gain eligibility.

Gach is coming off a season at Minnesota in which he averaged 6.8 points and 3.7 rebounds in 29 games. He started the first 16 games of the season, but struggled against the physicality of the Big Ten, coming off the bench for the final 13 games of the Golden Gophers’ 14-15 season.

“Right now, it’s all about working out, trying to see what fits, trying to see where different guys are best at,” Gach said. “For me, I need to see where I fit in here and where I can excel at 100%. Off the ball, on the ball. I know their plan for me is to play me at different positions, but I’m just going to keep working hard to see what works the best. These coaches, I trust these guys that they’re going to put me in positions to be successful.”