From COVID to appendicitis, Utah basketball’s Branden Carlson details his ‘crazy’ season for the Runnin’ Utes

The Utah big man made his return to the court this week and is looking to help the Utes get back on track

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) shoots the ball in the Utes 96-62 win over the Manhattan Jaspers at the Jon M.Huntsman Center, on Saturday, December 11, 2021.

Branden Carlson woke up on the morning of Jan. 7 and felt bloated, like he had air trapped in his stomach. He took some antacids, but the feeling didn’t go away. The leading scorer for the University of Utah men’s basketball team got through practice that afternoon, as the Utes prepared to host Washington State at the Huntsman Center the next day, though he still felt pain.

On the drive home around 5:30 p.m., that pain worsened.

“I got home, I went downstairs, I laid in bed and I couldn’t move,” Carlson told The Salt Lake Tribune Tuesday night via phone from Pullman, Wash., as the Utes prepared for Wednesday’s game. “I was curled up in a ball on the bed. I told my wife she needed to take me to the hospital.”

Carlson says he Googled the symptoms for appendicitis and called his mother, who is a registered nurse within the University of Utah hospital system. She agreed she thought it might be appendicitis. A CAT scan at the South Jordan Health Center confirmed it.

Appendicitis, of all things, cost Carlson five games — the latest setback in a series of setbacks for one of Utah’s most important players this season. Carlson tested positive for COVID-19 in mid-December, costing him two games and giving him an unplanned 21-day break between games. And all of that came after a right leg injury suffered on Dec. 1 at USC.

“It’s just crazy with everything that’s happened,” Carlson said. “You don’t want these things to happen of course. Injuries happen, but COVID, I still have no idea where I got it, but appendicitis, that one was a shocker because you don’t expect something like that. It is what it is and you have to take it as it comes. It’s been a roller coaster ride for sure, but hopefully the third time’s a charm and I’m done with this stuff now.”

Appendicitis is not a broken bone. It’s not a ligament pull, it’s not a muscle tear, or some other ailment an athlete expects to face. So what exactly does the ramp-up process look like for such an ailment?

As the Utes played the Cougars late on the afternoon of Jan. 8, Carlson was in a hospital bed at the University of Utah, awaiting an appendectomy later that evening, which went as planned with no surprises. For the first week afterwards, Carlson said he did absolutely nothing. He made the trip with the team to Arizona (Jan. 15) and Arizona State (Jan. 17), but got help with his suitcase in an effort not to engage any core muscles.

Upon returning home from Arizona, the rest of Carlson’s week was spent doing bodyweight workouts: lunges, squats and the like, while trying to keep his conditioning up on an exercise bike. Utah coach Craig Smith earlier this week laughed while recalling a practice scene inside the Huntsman Center where Carlson was just walking up and down the steep staircases between sections in an effort to get something physical in.

“He was walking up, walking down, but can you run a little bit? Can you rebound?” Smith joked. “It’s a step-by-step process. Between (athletic trainer) Trevor Jameson and (strength-and-conditioning coach) Logan Ogden, those two work hand-in-hand in so much of what we do. It’s those two getting together with Branden and seeing what’s the next step, what can we do, trying to get him going.”

Carlson graduated to weightlifting this week, not to mention reentering practice, but in a non-physical, no-contact capacity.

Getting back to practice was an indication that Carlson was close to returning.

That milestone occurred Wednesday at Washington State.

Carlson ended up playing 19 minutes at Beasley Coliseum. He scored eight points on 3-for-4 shooting, but he played to a minus-19 rating and the rust was evident. That was to be expected. Asking Carlson to play at a high level, 18 days off an appendectomy, with almost no physical contact would be too much. Wednesday, for all intents and purposes, marked the latter stages of the ramp-up process.

As that ramp-up process ends with Utah (8-13, 1-9 Pac-12) mired in a nine-game losing streak heading to Seattle on Saturday, two things are clear. The Utes need Carlson on the floor, and Carlson wants to be out there with his teammates.

“Obviously, his talent speaks for itself, but he’s a smart player and he’s a tough player,” Smith said. “There was some dialogue about some things before we got here that I had heard, but he’s displayed nothing but toughness and grit since we’ve been here in every way, shape, and form, both mentally and physically.

“I was really curious, though, because it is a different type of injury, how soon he would really want to come back, how eager he would be to get back, and he’s shown nothing but ‘I want to play, I want to play as soon as possible. If I’m cleared, I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.’”