For most players, it’s NCAA Tournament or bust. This is why Utah’s Marco Anthony chose a different path

The senior left Utah State for Utah because of a bond with Craig Smith

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Marco Anthony is pictured during the University of Utah Men’s basketball game on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022.

This is a story about relationships as much as it is about a single decision.

Marco Anthony’s decision — the one to leave Utah State for Utah this summer — was, on its face, a bit perplexing. Did it make sense to leave a Group of Five school with a proven path to the NCAA Tournament to come to a Power Five rebuild? Especially for his senior season, when playing in March means more looks from NBA scouts?

But that is the thing about relationships. They are long and messy. And sometimes, they force you into decisions that don’t seem to make sense to people on the outside.

Anthony’s choice hinged on a bond with Craig Smith, the affable, wry-talking coach from the Midwest. On paper, the two couldn’t be more different. Anthony is a mild-mannered Texan from San Antonio. His heart rate, as Smith says, never ventures over 50. But their relationship has withstood six years, five schools and four states.

So when Smith bolted to Utah this summer, leaving Utah State after three seasons, there was little question Anthony would follow. Within a month, Anthony left Logan and had an apartment in Salt Lake City.

There was no recruiting period. Smith and Anthony barely discussed it. Without hesitation, he sacrificed a chance at an NCAA Tournament berth — with all the benefits that come with it — to become Smith’s leader on a Utes team that returned just 23% of its minutes from a year ago.

“Marco is a relationship guy,” Smith said. “I don’t really think there was a recruiting pitch.”

As Utah’s season winds down — one marked by a 10-game losing streak and a predictably small chance of a postseason — Anthony is now faced with the ramifications of his decision. Barring a miracle, he won’t play in the NCAA Tournament. Utah State is on the bubble. But when he looks back at it, he sees a year well spent.

“I don’t regret it at all,” Anthony said. “I have an unbelievable relationship with my coach.”

Forging the Bond

When Smith first walked into a high school gym in San Antonio to watch Anthony play, he turned to assistant Eric Peterson and said, “We are never going to get him.”

Smith was the head coach of a middling South Dakota program at the time. As a second-year coach in the Summit League, he frankly wasn’t accustomed to getting top talent. And when he looked around the gym — seeing recruiters from the ACC, Big East and just about everywhere else — it quickly became apparent Anthony qualified as top talent.

In the past, Smith had been able to find under-recruited San Antonio kids. He had flipped future Texas Tech star Matt Mooney to come to South Dakota. But in this case, it was clear all Smith could do was give a frivolous pitch about his program.

“We were getting 45 letters a day from some schools,” Anthony’s father, Charles Gantt Jr., said. “I don’t really remember meeting Craig back then.”

Anthony committed to the University of Virginia three weeks later. And the two went their separate ways.

Anthony spent the next two years under Virginia coach Tony Bennett. He was on the Virginia team that lost to UMBC in the first round of the NCAA Tournament — the first time a one-seed lost to a 16-seed. He was also a member of the national championship team in 2019. His minutes, though, were stagnant and the coach who recruited him, Ron Sanchez, left for Charlotte after his freshman season.

Meanwhile, Smith spent the next two years resurrecting South Dakota. In 2018, he took the Jackrabbits to a 26-win season — its most since becoming a Division I school. He followed that success by taking a job at Utah State, leading the Aggies to the NCAA Tournament in his first year.

“After that season we had one scholarship we weren’t sure what to do with,” Peterson said. “Marco got his release from Virginia. And [we] reached out to him. It’s crazy. He’s like, ‘Coach, I didn’t listen to you. I want to play for you because I’ve seen how you play and it’s a perfect fit for me.’”

Smith asked Anthony and his parents to come to Logan. And on the morning of their visit, they all came to an agreement built on blind trust. Anthony had barely set foot in Utah, but agreed to commit to USU. Smith, who barely knew Anthony, was banking that a player without much game experience could be his focal point.

“We were in his office and Marco was just like, ‘Yes, I’ll come,” Gantt Jr. said. “I don’t think he expected him to just commit on the spot. He jumped over the table he was so happy.”

Utah State head coach Craig Smith, left, greets Utah State's Marco Anthony during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Utah State, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

‘Opposites attract’

Monica Gantt doesn’t take long to find words to describe her son. Mostly, she says, it’s because people have described her son the same way since middle school.

“He’s an old soul,” Gantt said. “Always has been.”

Smith is the opposite. He is known for stalking the sidelines and pumping up the crowd every chance he gets. Often when his players go up for rebounds, he too will jump in the air in solidarity. Expressiveness is generally his thing.

“Opposites attract though, right?” Gantt Jr said.

And while they do, it takes time. At first, their relationship developed out of need. But as Anthony redshirted his first year, the two started to talk.

Anthony became close with the coaching staff. He went over to Peterson’s house and played with his kids. He and Smith often talked about their off-the-court lives.

“He’s very funny. He has perspective. I think that’s a real positive. Sometimes [he’s so calm] I want to [scream], ‘Marco!’ but he’s just a unique individual,” Smith said.

In the comfort of their relationship, Anthony revealed a level of “goofiness” that complemented Smith’s energy.

It translated on the court. In 2021, Anthony played in 78% of the minutes after essentially not playing for three years. He became an All-Mountain West defender. Utah State made the NCAA Tournament before getting bounced in the first round by Texas Tech.

“He didn’t play a lot at Virginia,” Peterson said. “So I think a huge key to their relationship was just allowing Marco to have some time to redshirt, learn our system. Really get to know Craig. And I think that’s really helped the relationship as well.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Marco Anthony (10) as the Utah Utes host the Westminster Griffins, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021.

Looking ahead

There is little doubt this first season at Utah has been difficult for Smith and Anthony.

Utah is on pace to lose its most games in a decade and is at the bottom of the Pac-12. They knew it would be an uphill climb. But this is even worse than most predicted.

But amid the losing, both have seen bright spots. Anthony has emerged as a leader on a young team and Smith has relied on him heavily. Especially since Smith barely knew his roster before getting to Salt Lake. He openly admitted he never heard of Lazar Stefanovic, who now starts for Utah, until this summer.

While the two have different personalities, they balance each other out. Smith is quite combustible and looks for Anthony for his poise, especially in navigating this season. And for Anthony, he looks to his coach for guidance. After all, Smith essentially bet on Anthony when no one else would.

“I always think, who have I coached that is like him?” Smith said. “I’m not sure there is a guy.”