Branden Carlson injury compounds depth troubles as Utah basketball drops Pac-12 opener at No. 20 USC

Carlson, Utah’s leading scorer and rebounder, went down with 11:03 to go in the first half at the Galen Center

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) shoots over Brigham Young Cougars forward Gavin Baxter (51) as the Utah Utes host BYU, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.

Los Angeles • Even before the University of Utah opened Pac-12-play Wednesday night at USC with a 93-73 loss, the Utes’ injury situation was already bordering on the absurd.

Gabe Madsen hasn’t played since the Nov. 9 opener with what an athletic department spokesperson called a ‘non-COVID illness.’ Marco Anthony sprained his ankle Nov. 21 vs. Tulsa and hasn’t played since, Bostyn Holt is done for the season with an ACL injury, and Dusan Mahorcic is out until at least January with a knee injury suffered Saturday vs. BYU.

The tally there is one of Craig Smith’s projected top scoring options off the bench (Madsen), a veteran guard, not to mention his most-capable perimeter defender (Anthony), a junior college transfer who was beginning to play at a better-than-sufficient level (Holt), and his most-physical post presence (Mahorcic).

Then, the 11:03 mark of the first half at the Galen Center on Wednesday arrived.

After fighting for a rebound underneath the USC basket, third-year sophomore center Branden Carlson, Utah’s leading scorer and rebounder, got tangled up, went down and stayed down. After about a minute, he was helped to his feet and disappeared to the visiting locker room.

As the second half began, with Utah down by 20, Carlson emerged from the locker room with a boot on his right foot. His night was done, his immediate future being brought into question. Smith labeled Carlson as having a lower-leg injury, but had no specifics to offer in the immediate postgame haze.

Utah was scheduled to fly back to Salt Lake City Thursday morning, at which point Carlson could get some treatment and be better examined. The Utes will host Cal on Sunday at the Huntsman Center, before tackling an intriguing non-conference opportunity Wednesday vs. TCU on a pseudo-neutral floor at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth.

“Obviously, they’re one of the biggest teams in the country and with the way they play, size makes a big difference,” Smith said. “They’re a very good rebounding team, they’re elite at scoring around the basket, their second and third-leading scorers are 4s and 5s, so it makes a huge difference.”

At the time of Carlson’s injury, Utah was down just three at 17-14, but it was already beginning to feel like USC was starting to lean a little heavier on the Utes, who had only eight scholarship players to start the night thanks to all of the injuries. When Carlson exited, the 20th-ranked Trojans pounced, specifically at the rim.

Over the final 11:03 of the first half, USC shot 14-for-19. Of those 19 attempts, 12 of them were dunks, layups, or jumpers inside the paint. With Mahorcic and Carlson out, Utah was forced to go small, and going small against USC is not a recipe for success. Five days after getting crushed on the glass by another big team in BYU, Utah was minus-19 against USC, which was paced by 21 points and 13 rebounds from 6-foot-10 projected NBA first-round pick Isaiah Mobley.

“I’ve seen these guys work all offseason to get ready, so to see them get hurt, it sucks,” Both Gach said after tying his career-high with 28 points on 10-for-14 shooting. “For us, we just have to keep moving on and hope for the best.”

Where Utah (5-2, 1-0 Pac-12) goes from here isn’t exactly cut and dry.

Mahorcic and Holt are both shelved, but Anthony has shed a boot on his right foot. He and Madsen have not done any live work in practice, but they have been cleared for non-contact activity. Smith did not rule Anthony out for Cal on Sunday, nor did he sound optimistic about that possibility. Either way, indications have been that Anthony is likely to return sooner than Madsen.

One piece of good news out of Wednesday is that Gach looked like the best version of himself on offense. He was aggressive, he slashed, he got to the rim, he got to the foul line, he did a lot of damage with the ball in his hands.

If anything resembling what Gach did Wednesday continues, it takes the pressure off other guys, specifically David Jenkins Jr., who finished with 21 points and shot 5-for-9 from 3-point range, but he didn’t get it going until the second half. USC’s length out top gets the credit for neutralizing Jenkins. Clean looks were taken away and it took a long time for him to adjust, but the clean looks Jenkins did get early didn’t go down.

“We need to get him shots earlier, but teams are taking him away, too, so there’s some give and take there,” Smith said. “That’s something we’ll take a look at, I know we talked about that after the last game. I thought he had a couple of clean looks early, but now we have to look at that even more because who knows what the status of B.C. is.”