Marco Anthony trusts Craig Smith.
Anthony, the University of Utah’s new graduate transfer wing, does not come to that conclusion lightly, mostly because trust is not built overnight, or even over the course of days or weeks.
Anthony’s trust of Smith has been built over years, and it stems from the two men essentially taking a chance on each other.
A lightly-used backup wing on loaded, national championship-contenders at the University of Virginia in 2018 and 2019, Anthony hit the NCAA Transfer Portal in April 2019 after playing in 35 games across those two seasons. Smith, having just gone 28-7 with an NCAA Tournament berth in his first season at Utah State, took Anthony on, and both men were better off for it.
After taking a redshirt in 2019-20, per NCAA transfer guidelines, Anthony flourished last season, starting all 28 games he played in last season, averaging 10 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists for the Aggies, while acting as something of a defensive ace on the wing.
Smith left Logan for the University of Utah on March 27, eight days after Utah State fell to Texas Tech in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
With one season of eligibility left thanks to the NCAA freezing the eligibility clock in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, Anthony wasn’t interested in starting over with a third head coach in five seasons. He committed to Utah on April 20, eight days after entering the transfer portal for a second time.
“Everything he’s told me since day one, he never steered me wrong,” Anthony told The Salt Lake Tribune during a recent interview at the Huntsman Basketball Facility. “He’s never given me anything and hasn’t followed through with it. Knowing that, you can’t just build that with someone overnight. Someone like me, having one year left, having to go back and start over, that wasn’t an option for me. Knowing Coach Smith, knowing what he’s about, it was much easier for me this time around.
“If Coach Smith reached back out, I was going to follow him.”
With one open scholarship still at their disposal for the 2021-22 season, Smith and his staff have effectively cobbled together a roster, which, at a minimum, offers an eclectic mix of experiences.
Some of Smith’s players are returners from last season under Larry Krystkowiak (Riley Battin, Jaxon Brenchley, Branden Carlson, Lahat Thioune). There’s a not-so-new, but sort of new guy (Both Gach), a high-scoring, veteran guard out of the transfer portal (David Jenkins Jr.), and a young guard who, like Anthony, followed Smith to Salt Lake City (Rollie Worster).
Then, there’s Anthony, whose college basketball experience to this point offers a unique perspective that few can relate to. Certainly, no one on Smith’s first Utes roster has been through what Anthony has been through.
Anthony was a freshman on the infamous 2018 UVA team which, featuring four top-75 recruits and five future NBA draft picks, became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a 16-seed in the first round of the NCAA Tournament when UMBC pulled off a 74-54 stunner.
The next season, the core of that 2018 Cavaliers team returned with Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and DeAndre Hunter pacing it through a handful of NCAA Tournament nail-biters and, ultimately, the national championship.
As a sophomore on that title winner, Anthony averaged just 5.4 minutes per game across 22 contests, but he was there every day. He had that experience, the lowest of lows one season, the highest of highs the next. That type of mature outlook could be crucial inside a locker room full of new pieces.
“Being a part of that championship team, I saw what we had to bring every day in order to get where we got to,” Anthony said. “Carrying on that same energy, that same energy here, that’s already gotten us better here. We continue to grow off that, build off that, and I think the sky’s the limit.”
How exactly Anthony fits, or what his specific role may be is up for some debate, mostly because he has shown versatility in the past and doesn’t have to be pigeonholed by the staff.
As a redshirt junior last season for the Aggies, Anthony started off with several big scoring outbursts, but those gave way to some minor injuries that he played through. The end result was Anthony turning into more of a facilitator, dependable defensive option, and capable rebounder at his position for a team that got to the championship game of the Mountain West Tournament before picking up an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament.
“Honestly, it’s whatever Coach needs from me, and I really feel like my biggest strength is the versatility aspect,” Anthony said. “I think that facilitator role actually helped us win more games and ultimately, get to the NCAA Tournament. I want to stay aggressive, stay the player Coach wants me to be, and that’ll be fine.”