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Utah Runnin’ Utes have looked good thus far, but No. 18 BYU will be first big test

Utes are 5-0 for the first time since 2013-14, when they were 6-0 and wound up starting 11-1

The University of Utah basketball team celebrates win at the Sunshine Slam on Sun., Nov. 21, 2021

What were the reasonable expectations coming into Craig Smith’s first University of Utah basketball team?

Put together by a defensive-minded head coach, the Utes would likely be just that. They would defend, they would rebound, but there may be some question about how they would score. All of that said, the early portion of the non-conference schedule is soft, giving the Utes good opportunities to get on the same page in a handful of winnable games.

This college basketball season is five-games-old, and those projections have panned out to this point. Utah is 5-0 for the first time since 2013-14, when it started 6-0. A five-game sample size is far too small to be making any sort of concrete judgments about this group, but some of the raw statistics are difficult to ignore.

Through Monday’s games, Utah was ranked No. 1 in the Pac-12 and 23rd nationally in scoring defense (57.2 PPG), No. 1 in the Pac-12 and fourth nationally in rebounding margin (plus-16.6). Its field-goal percentage defense is inside the top-10% nationally, its defensive efficiency is inside the top-20% nationally.

Whatever questions there have been about turnovers, shot selection, the ability to find a consistent jumper from someone other than David Jenkins Jr., or any other offensive concern, nothing happening on that side of the floor is a glaring problem. At least, not yet as Smith’s team is doing an above-average job of defending and rebounding.

In fairness, all of this happened against five teams — Abilene Christian, Sacramento State, Bethune Cookman, Boston College and Tulsa — whose average KenPom.com rating was 222.2, but that’s the point. Utah should, and did beat all five of those opponents, which included a defensive slugfest against Boston College and another grinder against Tulsa on consecutive nights last weekend at the Sunshine Slam in Daytona Beach.

“This is what these guys love to do, you love to play in these MTEs,” Smith said Sunday night following a 72-58 win over the Golden Hurricane. “I think we continue to bond, I think we grew on the floor, that is easy to see. I also think we’ve grown and developed relationships off the floor, and that’s what you want to see in these things. Of course, you want to win, but there’s more to it when you’re running a program, building a team.

“I love where we’re at. This was a big tournament for us, because we’re learning how to win, and win differently. I think good teams can win with different styles of play, whether that’s 95-90 or 59-58. You have to be able to trust your bench and learn to win in different ways. We’ve defended well in all five games. I don’t know if there’s one game where you could say we didn’t defend and rebound.”

Fair enough, but now, things are about to crank up considerably for Smith and the Utes when No. 18 BYU visits the Huntsman Center on Saturday night.

As part of a 5-0 start, the Cougars beat San Diego State in Provo on Nov. 12, then throttled then-No. 12 Oregon four days later, 81-49, on a pseudo-neutral court at the Moda Center in Portland.

Utah’s non-conference schedule is filled with manageable, beatable teams, but it is also sprinkled with a few instances where the Utes are going to have to step up in class. On paper, this BYU team projects as an NCAA Tournament participant under Mark Pope, if not the biggest threat to Gonzaga in the WCC.

By any definition, BYU is the best team Utah will have played to this point, and may be the best team Utah sees before Pac-12-play begins in earnest Dec. 30 at Oregon State.

After BYU, Utah will play two Pac-12 games, Dec. 1 at USC and Dec. 5 vs. Cal back at the Huntsman Center.

“I know it’s a big thing for our fan base and for their fan base,” Smith said. “That’s the cool part about this state. You’re either a Runnin’ Ute, you’re a Cougar, you’re an Aggie, and there’s not much in between, and you love that.

“I haven’t experienced it firsthand yet, of course, but I understand that a lot of it is lineage, too. Your parents, your grandparents, and you’ve heard stories about grandparents being longtime season-ticket holders, parents having season tickets for x-number of years, and it just carries down to them, and their kids, and it’s a generational thing. That is a really unique thing and it’s awesome for this state.”

As the Utes’ first-year head coach, no, Smith has not experienced a Utah-BYU game, but his Utah State teams fell to the Cougars each of the last three seasons. Smith did not coach in last season’s Utah State-BYU game, a 68-64 decision in Logan, after he tested positive for COVID-19 earlier that week.

Smith joked recently that he watched that game from his basement, yelling at the television the entire time.

“That is part of what makes sports so enjoyable, is that rivalry and hopefully, it’s a respectful one, but it’s one where you’re all in,” Smith said. “There’s no, ‘I kind of like this team, but I like them, too.’ No, it’s ‘I love this team,’ and that’s such a cool part.”

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