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The Runnin’ Utes were expected to beat Division II Westminster. What else did we learn in Utah’s debut?

A look at the lineup, the intriguing Keba Keita, a lack of knockdown shooters, and more

(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.

Ahead of Monday’s season-opener, the University of Utah basketball team won its lone dress rehearsal on Thursday evening, 93-58, over Division II Westminster College at the Huntsman Center.

A first look at the lineup

The early portion of Utah’s schedule is light enough that it will allow second-year Utes head coach Craig Smith to experiment and see what works, which is good because he has a bunch of new pieces at his disposal.

Sixth-year senior guard Marco Anthony did not play Thursday night (more on that below), so Smith trotted out a starting five of Rollie Worster, Gabe Madsen, Lazar Stefanovic, Ben Carlson and Branden Carlson. No surprises. That qualifies as a veteran, not to mention big, lineup at Utah.

Mike Saunders Jr., Jaxon Brenchley, Wil Jr. Exacte, and intriguing freshman big man Keba Keita joined Stefanovic out of the under-16 media timeout, and that’s where things got interesting.

That is one of Smith’s potential small lineups and with Saunders Jr.’s ability to fly up and down the court, that group wanted to run. Utah looked its best on Thursday when it went small and pushed the pace.

Furthermore, a small first-half lineup of Saunders Jr., Madsen, Exacte, Bostyn Holt and Gavin Baxter was Utah’s best. Madsen started some last season in the backcourt as well as Thursday night, but I like the sharpshooting third-year sophomore coming off the bench. If everyone is healthy, that is likely where he will start the season, coming off the bench.

Utah played 13 players on Thursday, which included three walk-ons. Playing 12-13 is not going to be tenable, and Smith knows it.

“It’s hard to play 12 guys, it’s hard,” Smith said. “Ten, a lot of times, is the most you can do, especially in Division I. You have all these media timeouts, guys just don’t get as tired as when I coached at lower levels. It’s hard to stay in a rhythm and have timing when you’re playing so many guys.”

Keba Keita debuts well

Smith has used “freakazoid” to describe Keita, and it’s not hard to see why.

For a guy his size, the former Wasatch Academy standout gets up and down the floor well. If nothing else, he showed Thursday that he is capable of making an immediate impact as an end-to-end guy with a real ability to play above and protect the rim. You can’t overstate what Keita can do defensively for a team that lacks a ton of size in its frontcourt.

The thing with Keita is, he’s raw. He has only been in the United States for a few years, and he has not played a ton of high-level basketball yet. Before Wasatch Academy, he spent time at American Heritage School in Salt Lake City. He played AAU with the Utah Stars on the UA Rise circuit, which is considered below the sneaker giant’s main AAU entity, the Under Armour Association.

Offensively, he doesn’t have it all together, but you can see that it’s going to come with some more seasoning. You’re not going to see much of anything from Keita outside of about eight feet, which is fine.

One particular play stood out to me. Early in the first half, Stefanovic got a step on his defender and went baseline. The defense collapsed, and Stefanovic got a deft pass off to a rolling Keita, who bobbled the ball and turned it over. In the moment, it looked like Keita simply wasn’t ready to receive the pass. If he had been, it’s a dunk.

Keita plays physical and with a big motor, but everyone will need some patience as he figures it out. Keita logged 14 minutes on Thursday. That number feels like it could be roughly his average, but he does appear capable of going more if the matchup allows it.

There is, again, a lack of knockdown shooters

This was a thing for much of last season, Utah’s lack of consistent shooters. The Utes were sixth in the Pac-12 and 199th nationally last season in three-point field goal percentage last season at 33.6%. Utah’s 41.9% from the floor was only good for ninth in the league and 284th nationally.

Utah was 9 for 30 from deep on Thursday night. Again, let’s not judge this topic on one exhibition, but the concern to me was a lot of those misses were clean looks, in rhythm, stuff you should be knocking down more consistently, especially given the opponent.

Madsen has in-the-gym range when he has it going. Stefanovic had moments last season as a freshman, but he’s streaky. Based on Thursday, Exacte will not be afraid to put them up.

This season cannot be like last season in terms of perimeter shooting, because last season was a mess.

Other things on my mind

• Marco Anthony (bruised heel) and Serbian freshman Luka Tarlac (precautionary) both sat on Thursday, but Smith indicated both should return to practice on Friday, an indication that both are expected to be ready for Monday’s opener vs. LIU at the Huntsman Center (9 p.m., Pac-12 Mountain). Anthony started all 28 games he played in last season.

• Oft-injured BYU transfer Gavin Baxter was only cleared for full contact last week, so he was on a minutes restriction Thursday. He played five minutes, in which he knocked down a little eight-foot hook in the lane and a straightaway triple. If Smith can get anything tangible this fall out of Baxter, given his injury history, it should be viewed as a bonus.

• Between his speed and his ability to effectively quarterback a fastbreak, Mike Saunders Jr. offers a much different element to the point than what Rollie Worster does, maybe even a different element to this program going back several seasons.

• Ben Carlson had an invisible first half, followed by a more assertive, more aggressive second half. Carlson has been projected as a key piece of the puzzle, but I left Thursday night thinking he needed to offer more than what he did.