Why Craig Smith believes Utah basketball is on the right track

Smith, in his first year coaching the Runnin’ Utes, won just 11 games and did not make a postseason tournament

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah mens basketball coach, Craig Smith, is pictured during the game against Oregon State on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022.

Craig Smith’s first season as head men’s basketball coach at the University of Utah was unlike other first years at prior stops in his career.

There was no grand turnaround like at Mayville State, or South Dakota, or Utah State. His Runnin’ Utes didn’t qualify for the NCAA Tournament. He came to Utah from the Aggies as a man with a resume of winning and fell woefully short of his standards, going 11-20 overall and just 4-16 in the Pac-12.

But Utah fans have long been searching for a return to their former glory. So Smith will have some pressure to turn things around in Salt Lake City — and fast.

Smith, though, pushed back on the idea that he should have a timeline to when the Runnin’ Utes would again be a force to be reckoned with.

“I always hesitate to put timelines on things because … it can hold people back, and there’s no point in doing that,” Smith said this week.

Smith admitted more than once that last season didn’t go the way anyone wanted or anticipated. At one point, the Runnin’ Utes lost 12 of 13 games, and that included a 10-game losing streak. Injuries played a part, but so did deeper issuers as it relates to roster construction.

“When you really look, we lacked physicality up and down the lineup,” Smith said.

Smith also spoke briefly to how the team’s issues translated on the basketball court. In particular, he had grown accustomed to having personnel that looked more like football players rather than basketball players. Smith said that’s why his previous teams were so good.

But that wasn’t the reality in his first season at the helm, and it forced him to adapt in a way that wasn’t exactly comfortable.

“We had to do some different things with this team that I don’t necessarily like to do, but we had to do just because of our personnel,” Smith said. “So we couldn’t do a lot of things that have been very successful for us over the years.”

Smith believes next season’s crop of players solve some of those issues. Yes, he lost Lahat Thioune, David Jenkins Jr., Both Gach, Riley Battin, Jack Jamele and Harrison Creer this offseason. Yes, he let Dusan Mahorcic go during the season.

But in at least three players who will be joining Utah — Mike Saunders Jr., Keba Keita and Wilguens Exacte Jr. — and those returning, the Runnin’ Utes might fare better in the toughness department.

“I think we’ve really improved our athleticism, our physicality, our toughness,” Smith said. “There’s going to be some growing pains. We’re going to be a very young team. But I’m very, very excited with these guys coming in and the guys that are coming back.”

Despite a disappointing first season at the helm, Smith maintained that Utah still has high expectations for itself, and he intends on reaching them.

“Our expectation every year is to get to the NCAA Tournament,” Smith said. “That’s our expectation and that’s our goal and that’s what we strive to do, and then when when we get there.”