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Utah Runnin’ Utes overwhelm Westminster in exhibition

Utes open the regular season Tuesday night vs. Abilene Christian.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Jaxon Brenchley (5) scores as the Utah Utes host the Westminster Griffins, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021.

Exhibitions offer a number of benefits for college basketball teams, but consider the benefits specifically for Craig Smith on Thursday night.

The first-year University of Utah head coach is not only new himself, but he has seven players on his roster who have never played a game for the Utes. To that end, as the season-opener vs. Abilene Christian looms on Tuesday evening, maybe Smith isn’t totally sure how to go about his lineup.

That’s what Thursday’s 87-51 decision over crosstown Division II Westminster College was for, to mix, match, poke, prod, rearrange, change his mind, change his mind again, and then do all of that over again after he and his staff watch the film.

The Utes conducted a closed-door scrimmage vs. Wyoming on Oct. 23, but for all intents and purposes, Thursday night established a baseline for Smith.

The projected starting lineup is pretty new, but also pretty old

In that Oct. 23 scrimmage against the Cowboys, which was closed to the media, The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the Utes rolled out a starting lineup of Rollie Worster, David Jenkins Jr., Marco Anthony, Riley Battin and Branden Carlson. That same lineup opened things at the Huntsman Center on Thursday.

On one hand, 60% of that lineup is new with Worster and Anthony following Smith from Utah State, plus Jenkins Jr., who transferred from UNLV. On the other hand, take those three, add in Battin and Carlson, and that group has 325 career games between them, including 177 at the Power Five level.

That’s not a bad starting point for Smith, and nothing that took place against Westminster should be leading anyone to believe that those five won’t start Tuesday against Abilene Christian.

Within that five, Jenkins is as advertised. A volume shooter, a microwave scorer, a level of savvy commensurate with his level of experience. Carlson, a 7-foot third-year sophomore, continues to be an effective rim-to-rim guy with range out to the 3-point line. He does, however, need to start rebounding some more.

Some more on Jenkins

As Smith’s first roster came together over the spring and into the summer, based on nothing but career numbers, it seemed clear Jenkins, a 1,600-point scorer across three seasons between South Dakota State and UNLV, would need to take on a good chunk of the scoring burden.

Again, Jenkins looked as advertised looking for his shot, but he did so in a responsible manner. Very little was rushed, very little was forced during a 5-for-9 shooting night, which included missed on clean looks. For what’s worth, Smith was OK with the shot selection against Westminster.

“David can make many types of shots, so he’s trying to settle into the way we play,” Smith said. “Because of the freedom we give our guys, it’s a little bit of a work in progress finding your shots and how we’re going to get them.”

For the night, Utah shot 51.5% from the floor, while a late hot streak got the Utes to 42.9% from 3-point range.

Other things that stood out

• Smith has said since the Wyoming scrimmage that his team started slow that day. Utah started slow against Westminster, going down, 8-2. That should be a conversation before Tuesday.

• Illinois State transfer Dusan Mahorcic has not played a ton of college basketball, or really a ton of basketball in this country since coming over from Serbia as a teenager. He is raw, but his physicality and work around the rim will get him on the floor for Smith.

• This team will play hard and it will defend, both of which Smith demands. Those two factors are not in doubt, but where more of the scoring comes from might be.

• Gabe Madsen scored 2,400 points in high school, then opted out last season at Cincinnati two games into his freshman year. He hasn’t played much basketball of consequence since high school, but Smith has talked him up lately. There was no sign of rust on Thursday, and when he got going late in the game, he was tough.

• Smith has left open the possibility of a two-big lineup at some point with some combination of Carlson, Mahorcic, and Lahat Thioune. The situation with those three, and how they all fit, is still the most-intriguing lineup question now these Utes have debuted.

• Lazar Stefanovic is apparently going to have some ball-handling duties. The Serbian-born freshman did not shoot the ball well, but he was good otherwise and frankly, Stefanovic is one guy no one is worried about. As with all European recruits coming to the United States for the first time, there is an adjustment period, it’s just a matter of how long.

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