Utah Utes mailbag: Should Iowa State’s Sweet 16 run be a blueprint for Craig Smith?

Plus: Best wings spot in Salt Lake City, a narrator for Josh Newman’s everyday life, and more

Utah head coach Craig Smith looks on during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Washington in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament Wednesday, March 9, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

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There is no such thing as a Power Six Cinderella in the NCAA Tournament. You can’t play in the ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 or SEC and claim you’re the underdog. It just doesn’t compute, no matter how low a team might be seeded.

That said, there are always instances of a Power Six team having a wonky, average, even below-average season, then making an out-of-nowhere run to the second weekend. In this instance, I’m referring to Iowa State, which is through to the Sweet 16 as an 11-seed, one season removed from going 2-22.

A handful of fans in my DMs and emails have decided to connect what Iowa State is doing right now to what Utah could be doing in a year, so we’re going to begin this week’s Utes mailbag right there.

Do you have a question for Utes beat reporter Josh Newman? Send it to him via a tweet, direct message him on Twitter, email him at jnewman@sltrib.com, or leave it in the comments section at the end of this article and he will answer them in his weekly mailbag.

Q: “Why should Utah hoops fans stay ‘patient’ when, with a new hire, Iowa State went from two wins to a Sweet 16? Also, why isn’t Utah hoops cheating harder since it’s apparent you can get caught and it doesn’t matter one bit?” - @UTflyfisherman

A: *Takes off glasses, pinches bridge of nose, takes deep breath*

You want Utah to do what Iowa State is doing now? I find that thinking to be at least slightly flawed.

Let’s start here, and I admit up front that I am in the rational minority in believing the following: What happens in the NCAA Tournament should not validate or invalidate the season a team has had. The NCAA Tournament is very much about matchups, the regular season is about who can show up every night for four months. Two very different deals.

The Cyclones opened the season 12-0, including neutral-court wins over Xavier and Memphis when both were ranked, a win over Creighton in Omaha, and a home victory over eventual-Big Ten Tournament champion Iowa. They then proceeded to go 7-11 in the Big 12, got drilled in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament, and an at-large bid as an 11-seed was a clear indication that their November/December got them in, albeit barely.

Iowa State caught LSU without a head coach in the first round, but also deserves real kudos for the job it did in defending Big Ten Player of the Year Johnny Davis in winning a grinder over Wisconsin in the round of 32.

Has Iowa State had a good season? Would Utah fans sign up on at least a semi-regular basis for the season Iowa State has had? Personally, I find that hard to believe based on the regular season. Going 20-12 and sneaking into the field of 68 makes that debatable to me, but the Cyclones are in the Sweet 16, and that’s all most people will remember, which is always aggravating to me, a season getting boiled down to a small handful of games.

As far as Utah goes, the circumstances Craig Smith found himself in upon arrival last March, and the circumstances he finds himself in now are comparable to what the Cyclones have gone through.

After Iowa State went 2-22 in 2021, Steve Prohm was let go as head coach and T.J. Otzelberger was hired away from UNLV. Upon arrival, seven guys hit the transfer portal, so Otzelberger was left to fill those holes (sound familiar, Utah fans?). In hindsight, Otzelberger found portal success.

Penn State transfer Izaiah Brockington is his leading scorer, Kansas transfer Tristan Enaruna started 25 games and plays about 15 minutes per contest. Caleb Grill followed Otzelberger from UNLV and grew into one of the best sixth men in the Big 12. Minnesota transfer Gabe Kalscheur has panned out as a reliable, veteran rotation piece while filling up a stat sheet. All of that comes after the fact that Otzelberger saved the commitment of top-35 freshman guard Tyrese Hunter, who is now his second-leading scorer.

Iowa State is in the Sweet 16 with a turned-over, transfer-heavy roster. I’ve used this space in the recent past to lay out that Utah, coming off a 20-loss season and with portal departures imminent, can turn this thing around in one offseason if Smith and his staff can make hay in the portal. That’s not always easy, because the best portal guys are being courted by everyone, but Otzelberger is a good example of new-age portal recruiting, and finding the pieces that fit. That regular season the Cyclones put together was maddening, but it’s better than 2-22 overall and 0-18 in the Big 12.

Utah will have at least four open scholarships this offseason. If Smith can portal-dive and put the pieces together properly, a tangible step forward in 2022-23 is not asking a lot. This is a critical offseason for the program.

As for why isn’t Utah hoops cheating to get something done, I assume that was tongue-in-cheek, but seriously, is that really what some people want? You want to be Arizona and LSU? You want your athletic department publicly embarrassed and ridiculed? Coaches fired in shame and, in the case of Book Richardson, assistant coaches going to jail?

I have a hard time believing that the section of this fanbase with diplomas, the fans who have spent their entire existence living and dying with Utah athletics would want this athletic department to turn into Arizona and LSU.

Two things to finish this topic: One, the current athletics administration gives off a public perception of being the polar opposite of what we’re talking about here, which is a good thing. Two, you don’t want to hang a banner and eventually have to take it down and put it in storage. That’s not the road you want to go down if you genuinely care about Utah athletics.

Q: “Wings, best place you’ve found in SLC? Heat? Flavor?” - @rkdavidson13

A: I haven’t tried many in and around Salt Lake City since moving here, which is a grave culinary mistake because I really do enjoy them.

I have dined at Trolley Wing. Co. in Sugar House a number of times and find those wings to be very good. World’s greatest? No, but very good, very consistent, always delivers.

As for heat and flavor, I am lame. I don’t like heat in general with my food. Give me the mild wings, but if I’m with a group and the consensus is medium, sure I can usually hack the lower end of medium, but it’s not my preference. Traditional/buffalo is always the go-to move. Honey barbecue, maybe teriyaki if the mood strikes, but it’s rare.

I’ll toss this back to the readers now. Where should I be trying wings? I’ve heard nothing but positive things about the wings at SugarHouse BBQ, which is close enough to my place that I should be frequenting it. Copper Common also comes up regularly in conversation on this topic.

Q: “You’re walking around Salt Lake City on any given typical Josh Newman day. Which college basketball voice is narrating your day? Raftery? Nantz? Lundquist? Other?” - @RunninHoops

A: In submitting this question via Twitter DM, our faithful reader here tossed out Dick Vitale narrating me getting a bagel and Gus Johnson narrating me getting some pizza, both of which would be very on-brand, so that’s nicely done.

Regardless of what my social media presence may indicate, I consider myself generally pretty mellow. Excitable? Over the top? Absolutely some of the time, but definitely not all of the time. That said, I can’t have Dickie V or Gus losing their respective minds every time I change lanes on I-80 or pull off a perfect hardboiled egg. It’s too much.

Bill Raftery is kinda, sorta, maybe Dickie V Lite at times, but that’s still too much.

I always found Verne Lundquist to be smooth, even-keeled and professional, all while expressing appreciation when the moment was huge. When the moment was huge — I think of the Kick Six immediately when Uncle Verne comes up — he still didn’t go too far overboard. He let the moment breathe, he didn’t try to overpower everyone and everything.

That’s the guy I want narrating when The Bagel Project takes forever with my order on a Sunday morning, the guy I want narrating when I hit a deadline, the guy I want narrating when I have to walk to a B gate at SLC.

Verne is all class, a universally-adored true professional.

Q: “At some point, Lee Corso is gonna put on his last mascot head. Mike Leach is the obvious choice to replace him, right? Seems like a dream scenario for GameDay. Leach is in the Barklean realm of unpredictability + vulnerability + credibility. Who says no?” - @peterwatkins

A: Barklean is my new favorite non-word.

Every time this debate cranks back up, Leach’s name is always near the top of the list. When he feels like it, he’s funny, he’s personable, he knows the sport, he can deadpan anything at any point, which makes him a good idea, but also something of a wild card if things go south.

I have a hard time envisioning Leach wanting to bother with weekly television obligations, even if it is for just four months out of the year. He strikes me as a free soul, and if he isn’t coaching, I’ll bet he doesn’t want to be as deep in the game as he is now. I may be wrong, but that’s the vibe I always got from Leach, him not being a full-on “football guy.”

All of that said, well, what does ESPN do once Corso is out? I think the move is to not do anything, don’t replace the spot. Corso is so ingrained in the fabric of that program, that anyone trying to replace him, or reinvent his schtick, will fall hopelessly short.

The mascot heads aside, you could take Corso off that show right now and not lose much of anything in terms of analysis. Stick with that thinking whenever the time comes that Corso is no longer doing the show.