Three of the top-six men’s basketball teams in the country according to the latest Associated Press Top 25 — No. 3 UCLA, No. 5 USC and No. 6 Arizona — reside in the Pac-12.
There is a clear divide between those three programs and everyone else in the conference.
And that’s what the University of Utah has to deal with next.
When the Pac-12 released its full men’s hoops schedule in September, this upcoming stretch of games looked tough on paper. It looks tougher now, not only because of how well the Wildcats, Bruins and Trojans have played, but because of Utah’s own struggles, on the floor and due to the inability to catch a break healthwise.
For Utah (8-8, 1-5 Pac-12), this four-games-in-eight-days stretch, three of them against top-six teams, won’t be a referendum on Craig Smith’s first season at the helm, but it may help shape how the remainder of this season goes, for better or worse.
“It’s a gauntlet and it can snowball quickly one way or the other if you don’t have the right mentality,” said Smith, whose team has lost four straight games dating back to Dec. 30 at Oregon State. “We knew this would be a difficult stretch, you have to be able to get through it. This is what you want, though, so bring on the competition.
“You can’t run away from competition. We’re going to find out if we’re going to play team basketball, or if guys are going to do their own deal.”
Inconsistencies have marred the last two weeks, and Smith knows it. Almost no one has played steadily lately, and Smith knows that, too. There will be a good stretch of 10 minutes, followed by a poor stretch of five minutes. Another bad stretch here, another of four-plus minutes without a point there. Games have gotten away from the Utes for any number of reasons.
One factor in all of this, and Smith refuses to use it as an excuse, is that practicing has often been hard as the Utes have been beset by injury and illness. Some of it has been run of the mill, but some of it has also been freak occurrences.
Gabe Madsen missed six games earlier this season with what was recently revealed as a punctured lung. Marco Anthony missed three games with a sprained ankle. Dusan Mahorcic recently returned after missing eight games and most of a ninth with a right knee injury. Bostyn Holt played 27 minutes across four November games before he was lost for the season with a knee injury.
Then, there’s Branden Carlson, who epitomizes what Smith and the Utes have had to deal with to this point.
The 7-foot, third-year sophomore suffered an ankle injury in the first half of a loss at USC on Dec. 1. Utah played the second half of that game with just seven scholarship players available as Madsen, Anthony, Mahorcic and Holt were all unavailable. He missed two games last month while in health-and-safety protocol, and most recently, underwent an appendectomy on Jan. 8, when Utah suffered a 77-61 home loss to Washington State. Smith received word about the appendicitis diagnosis at roughly 10:15 p.m. the night before.
“You kind of get a little punch-drunk, you’re in the middle of the ring and you’re not sure what’s coming next,” Smith said. “We’ve had some very strange injuries this year, compounded by them coming at the same time. We had two frontline players (Carlson and Mahorcic), and for a long stretch, we were practicing with nine, 10, 11 guys, so you’re caught in the middle. How long can we practice? What can you work on? You’re working with a different team than the one you had.
“You miss a lot of valuable practice time, but that’s how it goes sometimes. I have not heard our guys make any excuses, and we’re certainly not going to. We’re dealing with reality.”
Smith told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this week that while there is not a firm target date for Carlson’s return, he will be out 2-3 weeks from the time of the appendectomy. With a best-case scenario, that means Carlson, Utah’s leading scorer (13.3 PPG) and second-leading rebounder (6.3 RPG), could be ready for USC’s visit to the Huntsman Center on Jan. 22. A full three weeks would mean Carlson misses at least five games, and probably a sixth at Washington on Jan. 29.
What sort of shape Utah might be in if Carlson is down for three weeks is unknown, but the answer is going to be shaped over these next eight days.
“We’ve had some tough times, it hasn’t been perfect, but we keep pushing forward,” Smith said. “Our chemistry has been great, but we haven’t had a real tough time like right now. That’s when you truly find out what kind of character you have and who truly loves to play the game, who is truly all in.
“As a staff, as a program, are moving forward in the right direction, or is it ‘woe is me?’”