Utes basketball has been spared the COVID-19 problems affecting rest of Pac-12 — so far

Utes are home this week against Washington and Washington State, both of which are coming off COVID-related pauses

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Both Gach (2) is called for an offensive foul as he collides with Manhattan Jaspers guard Romar Reid (2), in basketball action between the Utah Utes and the Manhattan Jaspers at the Jon M.Huntsman Center, on Saturday, December 11, 2021.

The University of Utah men’s basketball team is readying to host Washington State and Washington later this week. Given what is happening with college basketball across the country, the Utes playing two games qualifies as noteworthy.

The Omicron variant sparked an outbreak of COVID-19 issues across American sports, including college basketball, where, as of Tuesday morning, 60-plus programs were in health-and-safety protocol and unable to practice.

“We have been very fortunate in that respect that we haven’t had to postpone or cancel any games up to this point,” first-year Utes head coach Craig Smith said. “Our guys and everybody in our program has chosen to go full-steam ahead and do everything possible to put themselves and our team in a position to be able to roll at all times.”

Washington and Washington State were scheduled to play Dec. 29 in Pullman, but the game was postponed due to the Cougars having COVID issues. They exited a program pause on Tuesday and are on track to play Colorado Thursday. Washington has had its own COVID problems but played at Arizona on Monday.

With the exception of Branden Carlson missing two games last month while in the health-and-safety protocol, Utah, for now, has been spared the virus problems that other Pac-12 teams have faced.

“Our guys are really taking it upon themselves to do whatever they can to go play, and this is a group that loves to play,” Smith said.

After the COVID troubles across the league radically altered the schedule, there were three Pac-12 games played over the weekend. Utah played in two of them, a troubling 88-76 loss at Oregon State on Thursday and a 79-66 loss on Saturday at Oregon.

Between the positive tests and a holiday break in the schedule, the game in Corvallis was Carlson’s first since Dec. 11. Smith noted that Carlson showed some rust against Oregon State, but looked better against Oregon, and now has had more practice time to get a rhythm going following an optimistic start to the season.

Elsewhere, UCLA, a surprise Final Four participant in 2021 and looking the part again, hasn’t played since Dec. 11. In that time, a high-profile top-10 matchup vs. Arizona was postponed. In a throwback to last season’s on-the-fly scheduling, the Bruins on Tuesday announced a Wednesday tilt with Long Beach State. That will mark the second time those two have played each other following a 100-79 UCLA win on Nov. 15 at Pauley Pavilion.

Oregon and Oregon State have had pauses, as has another top-10 team, USC. Most recently, Arizona State on Monday night announced it was going on pause, wiping out upcoming games with UCLA and Arizona.

“I just think you put your head down, go prepare for everybody, and whatever happens is going to happen,” Smith said. “You feel bad for the student-athletes involved, but at the same time, I think these student-athletes have some pretty tough skin because they’ve been going through this for quite some time.”

Dusan Mahorcic’s return approaching

Fourth-year junior forward Dusan Mahorcic is beginning his ramp-up towards a return from a right knee injury suffered Nov. 27 vs. BYU.

Mahorcic has not gone through a full practice yet. Smith did not rule out Mahorcic playing this week, but a return Jan. 13 at Arizona State or Jan. 15 at Arizona appears more likely.

“He’s getting a lot closer, he’s been able to do some things on the floor,” Smith said. “Just starting late last week, he’s doing some skill stuff and he looks good. Getting him caught up to speed, we’re not going to just throw him out there without having gone through everything. He has to trust it, but we’ll see what happens. I would feel very confident in saying he’ll be back next week, but there is a slight chance he could be back this week.”