Just when the University of Utah was beginning to get healthy after a rash of early-season injuries, a frustrating 83-75 loss Saturday afternoon at Missouri featured the next problem facing these Utes.
Head coach Craig Smith confirmed postgame what The Salt Lake Tribune reported earlier Saturday, that 7-foot sophomore center Branden Carlson has been placed in the athletic department’s health-and-safety protocol. Carlson did not travel to Columbia, while multiple sources told the Tribune that Utah’s leading scorer (13.7 PPG) and rebounder (6.0 RPG) would likely miss Tuesday’s game vs. Fresno State.
Utah (7-4) is targeting Dec. 30 at Oregon State for Carlson’s return. The Utes play at Oregon on Jan. 1.
“It’s tough, he’s a big-time player, and we’ve all seen his productivity this year,” Smith said. “Certainly, he’s a pressure-reliever, you can play him at multiple spots. He’s anchored us for the most part, but hey, that’s how it goes.
“He’s a great player, he’s playing at a high level, and when you lose a guy like that, there are certainly things you have to overcome, but you have to overcome them.”
Smith noting that his team has to overcome things and actually doing that are two very different things. Frankly, given the situation across Utah’s frontline right now, actually overcoming the loss of Carlson was going to be tough given how much he does on both ends of the floor.
Utah is already without Dusan Mahorcic until January with a right leg injury, Lahat Thioune has not been able to stay on the floor for extended periods of time. That was again the case on Saturday. Meanwhile, Riley Battin was hampered by foul trouble throughout before fouling out with 3:31 to go in a 1-point game.
With all of this working against the Utes, Smith at times went small with Battin, or even super-small without Battin on the floor. The super-small lineup, which varied personnel with Both Gach, Marco Anthony, and David Jenkins Jr. anchoring it, looked for a good while in the second half like it was going to help Utah escape with a Power Five road win, but the defensive end of the floor is where Carlson was missed the most.
A lane-clogger and a legitimate, shot-blocking presence at the rim, Utah had no answer for bruising Tigers forward Kobe Brown, who had 27 on 8-for-11 shooting and 11-for-13 from the foul line as Mizzou finished with 38 points in the paint.
As Brown continued to be a problem as the second half wore on, it was clear Utah could not deal with him straight up, so Smith went to a 1-3-1 zone, which at times was effective, but other times felt a little discombobulated.
With 32 seconds left and Utah trailing by two, Jarron Coleman’s deep 3-pointer from straightaway against the 1-3-1 zone, with Rollie Worster getting a late hand up to contest, went down to push the Tigers (6-5) to a 78-73 lead, icing a somewhat unlikely win after the Utes held tenuous control for much of the afternoon.
Making the loss all the more frustrating, Missouri shot just 4-for-21 from 3-point range for the game, capped by that Coleman triple.
“We like that 1-3-1 zone, it throws teams off, you can maybe shake off some of the corner 3s, and maybe force them to shoot some long 3s they’re uncomfortable taking,” David Jenkins Jr. said after busting out a mini-slump with 18 points on 6-for-10 shooting, including 4-for-7 from 3-point range. “That’s something we can do better, we just have to work at it.”
Added Smith: “We usually do put some time into it. Tonight was a little bit different in that we played it with five guards on the floor. It was kind of like, ‘OK, Marco, you go here, Rollie, you go here.’ You do what you have to do to give yourselves a chance. You have to try to get them off the attack, slowed down, and less aggressive.”
Carlson’s absence on Saturday was profound, but this specific problem could be deemed short-term if the former Bingham High School star is indeed back when Pac-12-play restarts.
Bigger picture, there is a real question as to how what is happening in college basketball right now will impact these Utes.
Carlson’s absence comes as the landscape is being increasingly affected by COVID-19 and the Omicron variant. As of Saturday morning at 8 a.m., no fewer than 20 Division I programs were either in a COVID pause or had canceled games. Among those canceled games were high-profile, neutral-court matchups on Saturday afternoon between UCLA and North Carolina and Ohio State and Kentucky in Las Vegas, and Seton Hall and Iona at Madison Square Garden. The Tar Heels and Wildcats instead played each other Saturday afternoon in Vegas.
Every member of the Utah program — players, coaches, and support staff — is fully vaccinated. Smith told The Tribune earlier this week that booster shots are being arranged within the next week for any member of the program that wants to take advantage.