Utah Utes mailbag: Why did it take so long to retire Tom Chambers’ jersey?

Plus: Branden Carlson’s future, what kind of pizza is this Utah basketball season, and Gabe Madsen and Lazar Stefanovic

Former Utah player Tom Chambers speaks at his jersey retirement ceremony during halftime of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Oregon on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Alex Goodlett)

Tom Chambers scored nearly 1,700 points at the University of Utah between the 1977-78 and 1980-81 seasons. He then scored over 20,000 points, averaging 18.1 points and 6.1 rebounds across a 16-season NBA career.

On Saturday night during halftime of the Utah-Oregon game, Chambers had his No. 42 retired to the rafters of the Huntsman Center. There has been a bit of grumbling on that topic, so 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: “Why did it take 40 years to retire Tom Chambers’ jersey?” @richblove

A: This has been a very popular question this week, but there’s a ton of context necessary. Let’s do that first.

I have not been able to ascertain exactly when, but many, many years ago, a list of five criteria was created for retiring Utah basketball numbers. A candidate had to be a first-team All-American, a two-time All-Conference player or a conference Player of the Year, a statistical leader in a school record, have played for his country in an international competition, and played for four years at Utah.

Fine, but then Andrew Bogut won the Wooden Award, the Naismith Trophy and every other National Player of the Year honor worth mentioning in 2005 before leaving after his sophomore season. Later that year, he was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks as the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.

Bogut didn’t play at Utah for four years, but Utah essentially tore up the criteria, and rightfully so, to retire his jersey in 2006. You can’t have jerseys retired, then decide to retire other jerseys while bypassing a consensus National Player of the Year.

(Alex Goodlett | AP) Former Utah player Tom Chambers' jersey number hangs during halftime of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Oregon on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022, in Salt Lake City.

Retiring a jersey is a big deal. It means that a particular player is immortal, and yes, the player should have to reach a stiff set of criteria to get there. That said, the decision to let Bogut into the club, and to be clear, it was absolutely the correct decision, opened Pandora’s box. If you’re moving away from your criteria, that means you’re opening yourself up for debate, not to mention the candidacies of any number of players outside the club automatically become viable.

Utah did not wait 40 years to retire No. 42. The athletic department waited more like 16 years since Bogut’s jersey was retired on Feb. 8, 2016, but I’d like to go a little further on this.

Chambers deserved to have his jersey retired, and I would agree with people that if Utah scrapped the years-ago criteria when it retired Bogut’s jersey, then maybe the athletic department waited too long to get Chambers’ jersey up there. However, all things being equal, are we sure Chambers deserved to be at the front of the line?

Josh Grant is one of three 2,000-point scorers in program history, a three-time captain, a member of the program’s All-Century team, a Crimson Club Hall of Famer, and twice the WAC Player of the Year. His number is not retired.

Grant is the big one in my mind, but Jerry Chambers (MVP of the 1966 Final Four), Mike Newlin (three-time first-team All-WAC), Jeff Judkins (three-time first-team All-WAC) all have compelling cases.

On Chambers, he was the MVP of that 1966 Final Four despite Utah losing a national semifinal to Texas-Western, then losing the third-place game to Duke. That was a near-impossibility, to lose twice at the Final Four, and still be named the MVP. The third-place game was done away with in 1981.

Q: “Any serious risk of Branden Carlson calling it a college career after this year and trying to go pro?” - @HoopUte

A: Nothing surprises me anymore, and I learned a long time ago not to assume anything, especially when it comes to college basketball players coming and going. But the possibility of Branden Carlson leaving Utah after this year hasn’t even entered my mind.

I just don’t see it. Carlson is in his third year of college, so he presumably isn’t ready to graduate this spring.

From a basketball standpoint, he has taken clear steps forward in his game this season, but there is a lot more room to improve given his size and athleticism. If Carlson wants to be a pro, at least another year of seasoning would be beneficial, and I’m willing to bet he and his family realize that. Could Carlson go get paid somewhere next season? Yes, he could, but that would be shortsighted. If the 7-footer wants to declare for the NBA Draft this spring with the intention of gaining feedback before returning next season as a fourth-year junior, I don’t think that’s a bad idea.

Two things worth noting: One, this is Carlson’s fifth year out of high school after he took a two-year LDS mission right out of Bingham High School. He’s a little older than your average third-year college student. Two, he’s married, so picking up and moving might not be totally feasible.

Q: “If this season of Utah basketball were a pizza, what pizza would it be?” - @rkdavidson13

A: This season of Utah basketball started out fast, hit some speed bumps with injuries, went downhill around New Year’s, but the team has continued to play hard for the majority of the last month. Ultimately, as it stands, this Utes team has underachieved.

Have you ever tried something called St. Louis-style pizza? It has a cracker-like crust and traditionally includes Swiss cheese. You read that right. Swiss. St. Louis-style starts out fast because, yay, pizza, but you’re going to hit a speed bump because that crust is dry and will produce a lot of crumbs. Oh, St. Louis-style is playing hard, it’s trying to be in the mix with acclaimed regional pizza styles like New York, Chicago, New Haven, etc. Ultimately, it will underachieve compared to its regional brethren.

This Utah basketball season is a St. Louis-style pizza.

Q: “Assuming both stay on the team, who do you think makes more progress next season, Lazar Stefanovic or Gabe Madsen?” - @SmithSarvis

A: As noted above when discussing Branden Carlson above, nothing would surprise me, and let’s never assume anything, but as of now, for what it’s worth, I expect Stefanovic to return as a true sophomore and Madsen to return as a third-year sophomore.

I don’t think it’s fair to sit here and compare them in terms of who is going to make the most progress, but this is what I know. By all indications, Stefanovic and Madsen are workers. In-the-gym guys, getting the reps in, wanting to be better. Craig Smith can’t have enough guys like that, especially now, when things are tough, because those are culture guys.

Stefanovic, who played professionally as a teenager in his native Serbia, and Madsen, a 2,300-point scorer in high school for his father, Luke, are long-term pieces for Smith. Both are entrenched right now as starters, both have a lot of confidence in their respective games, both still have plenty of room to grow.

There will be changes to the makeup of Utah’s core this offseason with the NCAA Transfer Portal playing a central role in that transformation, but Stefanovic and Madsen are good bets to stick around. Smith and his program will be better off down the road because of it.