If there could be a theme for Utah’s Senior Day on Saturday, let it be summed up in one phrase: the future.
All week, Utah coach Craig Smith went through conversations with players with an eye toward 2023. He understood some seniors would want to move on and be honored. Others would want to stay. No decisions were final, of course, but the message was clear. There would be roster turnover after Smith’s first season.
And when the game actually played out, it was evident why Smith needs to have an early pulse on 2023. In a 84-71 loss to Colorado at the Huntsman Center, so much of what has made Utah an 11-19 team reared its head. A team made up of five transfers and a rebuilding roster tried to keep pace with the visiting Buffalos, but too often it was out-talented and overmatched.
By eight minutes into the game, Colorado built a 14-point lead. By halftime, it was 21 points. The deficit eventually ballooned to 29.
“To win you have to be able to guard people, and we didn’t do anything of the sort in the first half,” Smith said. “They were scoring almost two points a possession to start the game, which is putrid. In the second half we did a lot better job.”
That was mostly thanks to 18 points from David Jenkins Jr., a player who has embodied Utah’s season and the theme of the moving to the future.
Jenkins is a two-time transfer who hoped to play a big role on a cobbled together roster. His interactions playing against Smith — twice at South Dakota State and again at UNLV — led him to believe Smith’s haphazard roster could compete.
But as the months progressed, Jenkins went from a starter to out of the rotation as Smith realized his first-year roster would not catch lightning in a bottle. He likely won’t be back in 2023.
But on Saturday Jenkins tied for the team lead in scoring and rebounds. As has often been the case, though, Utah did not have enough support to make use of the effort. Colorado shot 51% from the field and 61% from 3-point range.
“It’s been a hard year for him,” Smith said. “He was the one guy who consistently scored for us. We can’t give up 50 first-half points though.”
Utah will have the Pac-12 tournament next week and then the page can officially be turned to 2023. Players like Branden Carlson, who had 18 points on Saturday, talked about making a run.
Oregon State did it last year as a 10-10 team in the Pac-12. Georgetown is another team mentioned as a model for how Utah could maybe win games in March.
“We are just going to focus on the tournament now,” Carlson said. “You know, I don’t know how to word this [to describe our season]. We are just 0-0 now.”
But those two teams had a different story than Utah. And if Saturday was any indication, this Utes program is going to Las Vegas with the gears still turning for the future.
“Never in my coaching career have a started four seniors on senior night,” Smith said. “I felt like it was important to do given this season for a lot of reasons. … I wish we could have finished [the regular season] better. But we have to reset and play the guys who are totally invested.”