The TribUte newsletter: UCLA, USC Pac-12 exits will have wide affect on basketball, too

Bruins and Trojans will join the Big Ten in 2024, leaving the long-term future of the Pac-12 murky

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) University of Utah men’s basketball head coach Craig Smith runs his team through drills at the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility on Thursday, July 14, 2022.

In times like these, when football is driving another round of conference realignment, it is important to remember that basketball is almost always collateral damage.

In the case of the Pac-12 current plight, that’s a real shame because UCLA’s exit to the Big Ten alongside USC means the preeminent conference in the Western United States is losing, not only its preeminent basketball brand, but one of national landscape’s true, unique blueblood programs.

Whatever becomes of the Pac-12 in the coming weeks, months and even years, once UCLA walks out the door in two years, its basketball brand is guaranteed to be different, if not worse.

“I think it’s a thing that, not with those two schools specifically, but I think it’s something we’ve all been able to see from a distance, that there’s going to be change and there’s been a lot of change over the last 14 months in all of college athletics,” second-year Utah head coach Craig Smith said Thursday afternoon following a team workout at the Huntsman Basketball Facility. “I don’t think that’s going to stop any time soon. I think there’s going to be a ton of changes that happen in the next year, two years, five years.

“In 3-5 years from now, I think college athletics is going to look a lot different.”

Smith was talking generally about more changes coming, but whatever changes ultimately come for the Pac-12 will have a direct effect on the Runnin’ Utes, who have not been to an NCAA Tournament out of arguably the weakest Power Six conference in the country since 2016.

For all intents and purposes, everything is still hypothetical at this point, but let’s consider what could be coming down the pike for the Utes.

If the Pac-12 raids the Mountain West, maybe it ends up with San Diego State and Boise State, currently two of the top mid-major programs in the country.

If the Big 12 takes Utah as part of a multi-team poaching, the Utes may end up in a conference with Kansas, Baylor and Texas Tech.

If the reported “loose partnership” between the Pac-12 and ACC comes to fruition, Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Virginia, Florida State, and Louisville might be on the docket.

There are no go-to options among those three. Nobody is asking what Utah would prefer here, nor is anyone asking what the rest of the Pac-12 basketball programs would prefer.

They’re all just collateral damage.

Other things on my mind

• The media was allowed into Utah practice on Thursday. I paid a lot of attention to 6-foot-8 former Wasatch Academy star Keba Keita, who looked as advertised. Just a freak of an athlete, a rim-to-rim guy, potentially a defensive force walking in the door for Smith. There were a handful of ‘whoa’ moments from Keita on Thursday, enough that you left the gym optimistic despite his being quite raw offensively. To be clear, Keita is absolutely raw, but certainly less raw than I was led to believe. For now, don’t bet on anything happening offensively from Keita from outside 8 feet.

• I’ve spent four months writing and talking about this, but there isn’t enough size on this roster. The good news is, maybe Keita is a little more ready to play real minutes than I first thought. Of course, let’s see what happens once school starts, practice starts, games start, and things get a little more serious, but that’s where I am right now. It’s Branden Carlson, Keita, Ben Carlson as a stretch-4, and maybe Gavin Baxter, who we’ll talk more about below.

• We’re talking about a July workout against his teammates here, but among the new guys, I thought Wil Exacte looked the most comfortable. He’s a plus athlete and he can shoot it, neither of which Utah had last season, especially the former. One noticeable thing to me was that Exacte wanted to go high octane at all times. Commendable, not sustainable, but the good news is, everyone says he’s very coachable, so now it’s up to Smith and staff to get that under control.

• Bostyn Holt and BYU transfer Gavin Baxter are not yet cleared for full contact, but Smith offered optimism that both would be ready to go by the time Utah’s fall semester begins on Aug. 22. What Baxter can give this season is an intriguing situation, having missed most of the last three seasons due to various injuries. If Utah gets anything resembling rotation minutes out of Baxter this winter, it strikes me as a bonus.