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Runnin’ Utes have reason to hope in Craig Smith’s first season, but key questions remain unanswered

Utes will open the season Nov. 9 vs. Abilene Christian at the Huntsman Center

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah coach Craig Smith as the Utah Utes host the Westminster Griffins, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021.

College basketball’s hibernation is nearly over.

It is time to get things cranked up at the University of Utah.

There is a new head coach, a pretty new roster and because of both of those factors, a good amount of mystery surrounding these Utes, who open the season Nov. 9 at the Huntsman Center against Abilene Christian.

As the opener looms, here are three reasons to believe in this year’s Runnin’ Utes squad, and three things that may cause some concern.

Three reasons to hope

1. Craig Smith is a proven winner: The program had become stagnant under Larry Krystkowiak, so in comes Smith, who has a career .676 winning percentage, not to mention an infectious upbeat quality to him. Smith coached Mayville State to the NAIA Division II championship game in 2007, won the Summit League while at South Dakota, and most recently coached Utah State to what would have been three NCAA Tournaments had the COVID-19 pandemic not canceled the Big Dance in 2020. Smith has earned an opportunity to seek the same type of success at a Power Five program.

2. A manageable early schedule: Upon arrival in late March, Smith and his chief scheduler, assistant coach Eric Peterson, walked into a difficult scheduling situation. Having inherited a few games they had to take on, the staff did a nice job of cobbling together the rest of the schedule, which, on paper, fits this roster. A bunch of games they should win at the Huntsman Center, a multi-team event with a real opportunity for two wins, and stepping up in class a couple of times (vs. BYU, at Missouri) before the Pac-12 slate begins in earnest on Dec. 31.

3. If Both Gach is eligible: If the onetime Utes guard, who played last season at Minnesota before transferring back to Salt Lake City in June, is eligible, it should be a boon for Smith.

A fourth-year junior with 86 career games between the two schools, Gach will be expected to defend at a high level for a coach whose calling card has often been defense. When fully engaged, Gach is capable of defending three positions. Gach can play some point guard if called upon, but his likely slot on that end of the floor is mostly off the ball.

Three reasons to mope

1. A lot of new faces: A whopping 10 players from last season’s opening night roster are gone, including four of Utah’s five leading scorers. There are seven players on this roster who have never put a Utah uniform on. If you consider Gach new, he would make eight.

That type of turnover, that many new faces from the NCAA transfer portal, plus a new head coach could all lend itself to a learning curve early in the season. That learning curve may get an immediate test with reigning Southland Tournament champion Abilene Christian serving as the season-opening opponent on Nov. 9.

2. A lack of size: Even a cursory look at Utah’s roster should have you wondering about what Smith’s frontcourt may look like, at least early.

Branden Carlson, a 7-foot third-year sophomore, has shown flashes, if not improvement in two seasons. Illinois State transfer Dusan Mahorcic is more of a physical bruiser, but both he and Carlson can go rim-to-rim well, which is a plus. Lahat Thioune is likely to get a longer look from Smith than he did from Krystkowiak, but the fourth-year sophomore should be considered a wild card until something tangibly changes.

That’s it, that’s the size.

There’s not a lot of it, but what Smith has at his disposal could be very effective. One bit of intrigue here is how often Smith goes big with any of two of these three guys on the floor at the same time. Keep 6-foot-9 Riley Battin in mind here, but he still projects as more of a stretch-4 with range out to the 3-point line.

3. Where is the scoring going to come from? With four of Utah’s top-five scorers from last season gone, it should be noted that those four, Timmy Allen (Texas), Alfonso Plummer (Illinois), Mikael Jantunen (turned pro), and Pelle Larsson (Arizona), accounted for 64% of all points the Utes scored.

Where Utah goes to make up for at least some of that is a key early-season storyline.

UNLV transfer David Jenkins Jr. has nearly 1,600 career points across three college seasons, but he is untested at this level, as is every other portal guy not named Gach. Marco Anthony is one option to take on some scoring after a productive redshirt junior season at Utah State in which he averaged 10 points in 32 minutes per game. Before transferring to Logan, Anthony was a reserve guard at Virginia in 2018, when it lost to UMBC in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, and in 2019 when it won the national championship.

2021-22 UTAH BASKETBALL SCHEDULE

Nov. 9, vs. Abilene Christian

Nov. 13, vs. Sacramento State

Nov. 15, vs. Bethune Cookman

Nov. 20, vs. Boston College (Sunshine Slam, Daytona, Fla.)

Nov. 21, vs. URI/Tulsa (Sunshine Slam)

Nov. 27, BYU

Dec. 1, at USC

Dec. 5, at Cal

Dec. 8, vs. TCU (Dickies Arena, Fort Worth, Texas)

Dec. 11, vs. Manhattan

Dec. 18, at Missouri

Dec. 21, vs. Fresno State

Dec. 30, at Oregon State

Jan. 1, at Oregon

Jan. 6, vs. Washington

Jan. 8, vs. Washington State

Jan. 13, at Arizona State

Jan. 15, at Arizona

Jan. 20, vs. UCLA

Jan. 22, vs. USC

Jan. 26, at Washington State

Jan. 29, at Washington

Feb. 3, vs. Oregon State

Feb. 5, vs. Oregon

Feb. 12, at Colorado

Feb. 17, at Stanford

Feb. 24, vs. Arizona

Feb. 26, vs. Arizona State

March 5, vs. Colorado

March 9-12, Pac-12 Tournament (T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas)

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