Ben Carlson isn’t the first highly rated recruit to need a fresh start.
But the versatile, 6-foot-9 wing who left Wisconsin for Utah this spring might be the most important recruiting victory, at least as far as the NCAA Transfer Portal goes, since Utes coach Craig Smith took over the program two years ago.
“I think this is a big opportunity to have a big impact right away,” Carlson said. “That’s the biggest thing for me. When I first committed to Wisconsin, I felt like I wanted to stay close to home, but this time around, I just want the right fit, and that’s here.”
How did the Utes land the former four-star recruit?
And what can he do for a program looking for a fresh start of its own?
Ben Carlson’s transfer to Utah
Before Smith could make a run at Carlson out of the NCAA Transfer Portal this past spring, the University of Utah basketball coach had to wait a few days.
Carlson, a former consensus four-star recruit in the class of 2020, saw action in 39 games across two up-and-down seasons at the University of Wisconsin before announcing his intentions to enter the portal in late March. The problem there for Smith, not to mention anyone else wanting to recruit Carlson, was that a dead period was starting the following day, lasting through April 7 at noon.
Per NCAA guidelines, a dead period is a “period of time when it is not permissible to make in-person recruiting contacts or evaluations on or off the member institution’s campus or to permit official or unofficial visits by prospective student-athletes to the institution’s campus.
In layman’s terms, Carlson and Smith could not meet face-to-face until that dead period ended on April 7, at which time a recruiting period opened, allowing for coaches to conduct in-person, off-campus activity with prospective recruits.
Not long after that dead period ended, Smith made his way to Madison to make a play for Carlson, a versatile 6-foot-9, 235-pound native of Woodbury, Minn., who at one time had a bevy of major Division I interest, but was now looking for a reboot.
“The thing I know Ben really appreciated about Craig and Utah is that he came and saw Ben as soon as he could, he came to Wisconsin and was very upfront about why he wanted him at Utah,” Carlson’s father, Marc, who played at Iowa State from 1992-94, told The Salt Lake Tribune during a recent phone interview. “Craig is a Minnesota guy, (Utah director of player personnel) Tramel (Barnes) is a Minnesota guy, he’d seen Ben when he was in high school. Everything they said to Ben during the recruiting process made Ben believe that Craig was invested in him, that he believed in Ben.
“The portal is speed dating. High school, that’s courtship, engagement, marriage. The portal moves really fast because every day, someone new shows up who may become a staff’s No. 1 guy. Ben saw some of that both ways, but Utah was consistent, Coach Smith was consistent all the way through. They took the time, they researched, they talked to us as parents, and when we visited, I thought it was very good.”
Marc accompanied Ben to Salt Lake City for a visit later in the month of April. On April 30, Carlson announced his commitment to the Utes.
“I had a great time at Wisconsin, made a lot of great friends, built a lot of strong relationships, but I was looking for a different opportunity at a different school, maybe a different style I guess,” Carlson told The Tribune. “I think I’ve found that here after a lot of schools called, but Utah was one of the first ones.”
What happened at Wisconsin?
A 2,000-point scorer who also hauled in over 1,000 rebounds at East Ridge High School, Carlson officially visited Xavier, Wisconsin, Purdue and Stanford before selecting the Badgers as the highest-rated player of a five-man class that included 2022 Big Ten Player of the Year Johnny Davis, the 10th overall pick in last month’s NBA draft.
Carlson lasted seven games as a freshman before losing the remainder of the season to a back injury. As his father tells it, that injury occurred during the preseason and he believes Carlson tried to play through it, which wasn’t a great idea.
Carlson got himself ramped back up for Wisconsin’s postseason, gaining full clearance for the NCAA Tournament. He played briefly in a first-round win over North Carolina, was a DNP-CD in a round-of-32 loss to Baylor, and that was it. The sum total of his first year of college basketball was seven games, 84 minutes, 20 points.
Playing in 32 games, including two starts, last season belies the fact that Carlson’s freshman season was marred by a lot of missed practice time and in turn, a lot of lost opportunities in terms of development.
To that end, Marc Carlson offered Wisconsin 7-foot junior Steven Crowl, another member of that 2020 recruiting class. Crowl played sparingly as a freshman while behind a pair of seniors, Nate Reuvers and Micah Potter.
After a year of development (and staying healthy), Crowl started all 33 games last season, averaging 8.8 points and 4.4 rebounds, while in line to figure even more prominently next season, especially with Davis off to the NBA.
Consideration was given by Carlson to stick around at Wisconsin, but a fresh start was too enticing.
“Wisconsin is a system,” Marc Carlson said. “Guards can probably get there a little quicker, while bigs take some time, and that’s kind of the story. For his style of play, Ben is, I’ve always said, Pac-12, Big 12, Big East because he runs well, he can handle the ball, he can go to the rim. In the Big Ten, you have to body up, bang with guys. Some schools want to play faster, but some really want to pound it in.”
Is Carlson Utah’s answer to an ongoing problem?
As Smith dealt with roster defections and sifting through the portal in cobbling together his first roster in the spring of 2021, one glaring factor was a lack of size and physicality.
Smith wound up with 7-footer Branden Carlson, who blossomed into an All-Pac-12 talent last season, seldom-used Lahat Thioune, Riley Battin, who is more of a wing, and 6-foot-10 Dusan Mahorcic, a late get out of the portal from Illinois State.
Thioune never found his footing and has transferred to UCF. Battin’s role waned as he transferred to Cal Baptist. Mahorcic was shelved for nine games with a right knee injury and was later suspended, then dismissed from the team in February. He will play next season at North Carolina State.
Thioune, Battin, and Mahorcic are out, Carlson, oft-injured BYU transfer Gavin Baxter and three-star Wasatch Academy star Keba Keita.
Having played in just 17 games over the last three seasons thanks to shoulder and knee injuries, Baxter is a total wild card entering 2022-23. If Utah gets rotation minutes out of Baxter, it’s a bonus. If Baxter does not pan out, it was a low-risk play anyway by Smith seeing as how Baxter is a walk-on.
Keita is capable of being a defensive force at the rim immediately, but his game needs to mature and how willing Smith is to throw him out there for long stretches, at least at the outset, remains to be seen.
That leaves Carlson, a versatile 4-man who played a lot with his back to the basket at Wisconsin, but is now readying to return to the player he always painted himself as.
Carlson can operate on the perimeter, take bigger defenders off the dribble, shoot the 3, and rebound. Rebounding will be key because the Utes did not have enough of it last season, finishing 185th nationally in rebounding margin.
A projected starting frontcourt of Marco Anthony, Ben Carlson and Branden Carlson appears to make the most sense, but it is not physically imposing. That said, unless Keita is somehow ready for huge minutes immediately, Ben Carlson is going to play a ton.
Anthony, to his credit, can guard three, maybe four positions on some nights if Smith wants to go small.
“I ask him every day how he’s doing, and he keeps telling me he likes it,” Carlson’s mother, Sheri, a 2009 inductee into the St. Cloud State Hall of Fame as a volleyball player, told The Trib. “He likes the guys. He’s more of a quiet kid, and I think he feels welcomed by them. He likes the positivity of the coaches and he feels he’s getting back to his game, that he’s comfortable with, that he knows. The coaches are giving more freedom to play the way he normally plays.”
Added Ben Carlson: “Getting a new opportunity. I’m going to take it and run with it. There’s definitely a chip on my shoulder.”
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