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Utah Utes mailbag: Will Dusan Mahorcic play another game this season?

Plus: More Runnin’ Utes, is Utah a football school or a basketball school, one New York City meal, and more

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Washington State Cougars forward Efe Abogidi (0) pressures Utah Utes forward Dusan Mahorcic (21) in game action during an NCAA college basketball game at the Jon M.Huntsman Center, on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. Utah lost 61-77.

In the middle of a 10-game losing streak, the University of Utah basketball coach Craig Smith has indefinitely suspended Dusan Mahorcic, a key rotation player. We’re going to start this week’s Utes mailbag right there.

As always if you have a question for the Utah Utes mailbag, you can fire off a tweet to @Joshua_Newman, slide into my DMs, email me at jnewman@sltrib.com, or even leave a comment at the bottom of this story.

Q: “What happened with Dusan Mahorcic and when can we expect him back?” - @MatthewGfunk

A: Mahorcic is suspended indefinitely, an unknown amount of time. With eight regular-season games remaining, plus at least one in the Pac-12 Tournament, there is no promise that Mahorcic plays another game this season.

Generally speaking, suspending someone indefinitely is a radical move. Suspending someone for a game, two games, a week over a transgression? That sends a message. In my experience, an indefinite suspension indicates that whatever happened with Mahorcic was not a one-time thing, but rather a series of things over the course of time, which finally compelled Craig Smith to act. Of course, this whole thing is magnified thanks to a 10-game losing streak.

During Smith’s weekly ESPN700 radio show on Monday evening, he said something to the effect that his team had recently become galvanized. My beat writer antenna went off on that one. Was this group, whose chemistry Smith has lauded all season, not feeling and/or looking together recently? Was the locker room fractured? If yes, what happened that they became galvanized and when did it happen.

When Smith conducted his weekly session with beat reporters on Tuesday, I asked exactly that. What happened that his team became galvanized and when did it happen?

After half-jokingly saying he almost regretted saying that Monday night as soon as he said it, Smith got more serious. His entire answer is below:

“I just thought we had a really good ... listen, we had every opportunity to beat UCLA two weeks ago. We missed two wide-open 3s (in the final seconds). We played well versus USC. We’re not into moral victories, but we played those guys tough. Even though it wasn’t perfect, we were still right there. Arizona, three weeks ago, not that we were going to win, but it was a 3-point game with 12:00 to go. We did some really, really good things. Arizona State made one more play than us, Washington made one more play than us, but I just thought we had a big-time look in our locker room.

“Our preparation was very good and our team felt different on Saturday. As a group, you watch the whole game, our bench was just so locked into the game the whole time. It was easy to see on the replay, but you could feel it during the game. It was probably the second-hardest environment we’ve played in.

“We just had a steely look to us, a gritty look to us. Our chemistry was big-time. You could just feel the unity within the team. That’s just what it felt like, and I won’t go any further than that.”

The first paragraph is fair, and Smith is correct in what he said about being right there recently against previous opponents, but for the purposes of discussing Mahorcic, we can probably skip to the third paragraph. Smith goes into grit, chemistry, and unity when talking about Saturday at Washington, which was the first game of Mahorcic’s suspension, then stopped himself just as he was really starting to get into the heart of his answer.

Again, indefinite means unknown, but I’m willing to bet Mahorcic doesn’t play another game for Utah this season. Furthermore, Mahorcic is a bit older than your average fourth-year college student, and there have been rumblings that he doesn’t intend to return next season, which means his Utah career would be over after 13 games.

There are going to be those among the fan base who swear up and down they thought Mahorcic was a bad idea from the start. That’s revisionist nonsense. I’m here to help.

As Smith and his staff sought to put together their first roster upon arrival last spring, there was a stark lack of depth in the post. Mahorcic was in the NCAA Transfer Portal, having received interest from some Power Fives, including Texas A&M, Texas and Clemson, plus UNLV, Colorado State and New Mexico.

Utah got in there very late, but Smith and lead assistant Eric Peterson got it done, scoring a commitment on May 31. In that instance, Utah went from having no depth and a lack of physicality to having at least some depth, more physicality and a legitimate post presence after Mahorcic averaged 9.9 points and 7.2 rebounds in 22 games last season at Illinois State.

Earlier this week, one West Coast-based assistant from outside the Pac-12 told me that Utah taking Mahorcic was a “calculated risk.” Fair enough, but the transfer portal wasn’t exactly flush with what Utah needed, so it took that risk. At the time, under the circumstances, that was a risk worth taking. Sometimes, risks don’t work out, which appears to be the case here.

Q: “Was expecting more from Utah MBB. Any indication it will be better next year? (Certainly couldn’t be worse, right?)” - @ShortStackUte

A: Things are bad right now, but to be clear, things could definitely be worse.

Whether next year is better is largely dependent upon how many scholarships Craig Smith has at his disposal. Right now, unofficially, he has none for 2022-23 after 2022 recruit Wilguens Exacte Jr. committed last month, but that’s going to change.

Based on reading between the lines of some of what Smith said at his weekly press conference on Tuesday, plus the difficulty of where this season has gone, plus commonsense in this age of the transfer portal, I have a hard time believing everyone is coming back.

Here’s some food for thought: Lahat Thioune, David Jenkins Jr., Both Gach, Marco Anthony, Dusan Mahorcic, Riley Battin all have two years or less of eligibility remaining.

Thioune’s role has been minimal and Battin’s has recently been drastically reduced. Both hit the portal last spring following Krystkowiak’s firing, but changed their minds and opted to play for Smith.

Do any of these older guys have an appetite to continue being in school? In spitballing from strictly a basketball standpoint, Jenkins Jr., Gach, and Anthony have all transferred multiple times in their respective careers and all of them would have a hard time transferring again at the Division I level.

Bottom line: I expect Smith’s roster in his second season next winter to look significantly different than his first roster. Things can get better in a hurry with a makeover.

Q: “Recency bias would say Utah is a football school, but, historically speaking, is Utah just as much a basketball school as it is a football school?” - @thiccboi_luke

A: Tough question, one where my thinking has changed over the years. Once upon a time, I felt like you had to pigeonhole a place as a football school, a basketball school, or neither, and it could never change.

Depending on how recently you want to go, let’s say the last decade, yes, Utah has morphed into more of a football school. Going from the Mountain West to the Pac-12, there are higher stakes, better broadcast designations, better bowl games, better matchups, better everything. Plus, Rice-Eccles Stadium has sold out every game since 2010, with no reason to believe that’s not going to continue into 2022 and beyond. Utah is a football school.

As our questioner alludes to, Utah basketball, for decades, was the main attraction on campus. Jack Gardner, Jerry Pimm, of course Rick Majerus, and no matter what you think of Larry Krystkowiak, he went two NCAA Tournaments and an NIT final, which is more than any coach since Majerus can claim. Plus, the Huntsman Center, site of the Magic vs. Bird 1979 national championship game, is an underappreciated cathedral of the sport. Even if football garners more attention right now, Utah is also a basketball school.

Yes, it’s both.

Specifically with basketball, the fan base is largely angry at the state of things right now. Angry because a great number of them were around for the heyday and know what the program and the Huntsman Center can be. Anger is better than indifference, which is what the end of the Krystkowiak era yielded. It’s OK to be angry. That means people want better, which means those people care. Caring is good, caring means people aren’t giving up.

Q: “What do you think about the team’s secondary going into next year? Feels like that’s the biggest weakness, and I realize they haven’t even had spring practice yet.” - @poergS

A: For context, this question came in after news broke Tuesday of Oklahoma quarterback transfer Caleb Williams committing to USC.

I think the secondary certainly has questions going into spring practice, but you know what you’re getting in some spots. Clark Phillips III is one cornerback, Malone Mataele is the nickel, Cole Bishop finished 2021 with a flourish at one safety spot.

Now, the questions. What is JT Broughton’s health status for the other cornerback spot? Does RJ Hubert replace Vonte Davis at the other safety spot? What does cornerback depth look like after the coaching staff bypassed a host of guys in starting Micah Bernard in the Rose Bowl? How much of a priority is the secondary when looking at the transfer portal? The fallout from Bernard starting on New Year’s Day began Tuesday when LaCarea Pleasant-Johnson entered the transfer portal.

Labeling the secondary as the biggest weakness is an interesting notion. I don’t think the things I mentioned above are dire or unfixable, but there are definitely things that need to be addressed. I’ll give you that.

Q: “Is Bill Parcells the greatest coach in the history of both the Giants and Jets?” - @TheJugg801

A: I’m taking Parcells as the greatest coach in Giants history, but I would listen to a debate. Highest winning percentage in team history in the Super Bowl era, two Super Bowls, three NFC East titles, but in fairness, a season or two of unmet expectations mixed in. Tom Coughlin won more games over a longer period of time and also won two Super Bowls, but Parcells had a bigger impact.

You gain a true appreciation for how bad the Jets have been historically by looking at the list of head coaches. Of the 20 head coaches in team history, Parcells and Al Groh are the only ones with a winning percentage better than .500. Cross off Groh, who coached just the 2000 team to a 9-7 record, capped by three straight losses in coughing up a sure playoff spot.

Deep breath ...

Yes, Parcells is the best coach in Jets history despite coaching only three seasons. Lost a win-and-in Week 17 game to Barry Sanders and the Lions in ‘97, the ‘98 team was one half from going to the Super Bowl, the ‘99 team lost Vinny Testeverde to a ruptured achilles in Week 1, cratered, then rallied to finish 8-8.

Yes, I know Weeb Ewbank won a Super Bowl. He was also four games under .500 across a decade. Nope. Yes, I know Herm Edwards went to the playoffs three times in five seasons. Also nope.

Q: “Let’s say I’ve got one meal in New York and then I die. Where am I eating?” - @SaltLakeJake

A: I don’t really want the responsibility of planning your final meal, but OK.

One meal in New York. You’re having pizza, so the question becomes, well, where?

Joe’s Pizza is an institution. It’s quintessential New York pizza, maybe quintessential New York to be honest. There are multiple locations around NYC, but you’re going to the one in Greenwich Village on Carmine Street, mostly for the experience and the neighborhood.

Don’t overthink the order, don’t become mesmerized by what’s out on the counter behind the glass. Plain slice. Better yet, two plain slices.

Walk around that area, take it all in, and maybe order a whole pie and ship it back here in dry ice. Do me that solid.