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3 takeaways from Utah basketball’s season-opening win over LIU

The rotation will take time to figure out, Gabe Madsen’s big opportunity, a lack of interior defense, and more.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) blocks a shot by Long Island University Sharks forward Jake Cook as the University of Utah hosts Long Island University, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Monday, Nov. 7, 2022.

The University of Utah basketball team opened its season on Monday evening with an 89-48 blowout of Long Island University at the Huntsman Center.

Here are three takeaways, plus a few spare thoughts.

Figuring out the rotation will be painful at times.

Let’s preface this with, Monday was the season-opener, it’s a soft November schedule, and there is plenty of time and opportunity to figure this all out.

A starting five of Rollie Worster, Lazar Stefanovic, Gabe Madsen, Ben Carlson, Branden Carlson was in control from the outset.

Keba Keita for Branden Carlson and Wil Exacte for Stefanovic at the under-16 timeout was not a huge dropoff, nor was Gavin Baxter for Ben Carlson or Mike Saunders Jr. for Rollie Worster at the 14:34 mark.

A mostly-second unit look at that point of Saunders Jr., Exacte, Madsen, Baxter and Keita offered more speed, more willingness to go up and down, more physicality, which Utah lacked a year ago. In one instance, Utah rolled out some backcourt pressure with Saunders Jr. and Exacte doubling the ball and forcing a turnover.

For almost two minutes of clock later in the first half, things got rough with a lineup of Worster, Jaxon Brenchley, Madsen, Ben Carlson, and Keita, who was replaced in that span by Baxter. Bad shots, a couple of turnovers, not guarding the ball, and not getting back in transition all led to LIU getting to within eight before Smith called a timeout.

“I think we’re learning definitely some different things with our lineups and who’s going to play well with one another,” Smith said. “Part of it, too, is who we’re playing and what we need.”

Ten players played at least 11 minutes, not including Baxter, who is on a minutes restriction, and not including Marco Anthony, who had a setback over the weekend with his bruised heel, missed Monday, and could miss some more time.

Smith said last week after the exhibition win over Westminster that he knows it would be hard to give 11, 12, 13 guys rotation minutes. Now, November with a softer, non-conference schedule is conducive to getting all of this figured out. Monday was a start, because now Smith should have a bit better of an idea of what he’s dealing with.

Gabe Madsen now has a big opportunity

Madsen missed about a month early last season due to injury. When he came back, he had some trouble finding his footing, but as the season wore on, he settled in, his role increased, and there were a handful of games where he really shot the ball well. Madsen could come off the bench as a microwave guy, but he clearly produced as a starter, which leads us to Monday night.

When Anthony emerged from the tunnel for warmups in street clothes, it was clear Madsen was going to start and play big minutes. He did something with that opportunity, scoring 13 points in 25 minutes. He shot just 2-for-8 from the floor, but got to the foul line seven times, which nearly doubled his career-high for attempts in a game.

If Anthony is going to miss some time as Smith intimated, then this is an important upcoming stretch for Madsen to solidify himself as an important piece of the puzzle. If Madsen continues to play well, it will be interesting to see if it’s enough to shake up the lineup once Anthony is ready. Anthony did a lot for Utah last year, including the ability to guard four positions, a skill that wasn’t exactly in abundance with last season’s team.

Madsen tacked on 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason, and the difference was noticeable on Monday. He played physical and aggressive, certainly more so than last season, he wanted to get moving to the basket when the opportunity was there, and he was looking for his shot, which has never been an issue.

Count me as bullish on Madsen as this season starts unfolding.

Interior defense might be an issue

There is always at least one thing to nitpick, even in a 41-point drubbing. In this case, that thing is that LIU was doing damage at the rim, not at will, but certainly enough of the time that it felt like something that needed fixing.

The Sharks scored 30 points in the paint, which on the surface should not be alarming, but when they score 48, 30 becomes a bigger, more glaring figure. Of those 15 buckets in the paint, at least a handful of them came on line drives to the rim, where weak-side help never came, or was late getting there.

“We always tell our big guys, ‘You gotta get your work done early,’ Smith said. “You have to be able to get your work done early, anticipate things, and take some of those passes away. In some cases tonight, that wasn’t a concern. We played a lot of 1-on-1 in the post today. You still have to keep getting better in that respect, we just have to continue to play with more physicality.

“Especially early on, they pounded it in there, but it didn’t really hurt us. We don’t want to build bad habits, but we were OK with that.”

Fair enough. Utah has one legitimate rim protector in Branden Carlson, and probably a second in Keita. Both had three blocks, both had moments where they had would-be drivers thinking twice before challenging at the rim.

I said this after Westminster, but I would like to see what a Carlson-Keita frontline looks like at some point. We have not seen that yet through the exhibition and the season opener.

Other things on my mind

• Baxter played six minutes, and his one bucket was a stroll down the lane for a dunk, without even a hint of defense. Positive contributions, no matter how small, are huge as Baxter continues back from his latest injury, a torn ACL suffered last season. Expect a minutes restriction to remain in place for the foreseeable future.

• Keita had mostly a tough night, committing four fouls and finishing with six points in 12 minutes, all of it coming well after the outcome had been decided. One first-half sequence in which he looked lost on consecutive possessions and got yanked was particularly ugly. Yes, he is raw but there were a small handful of moments that reminded you what he could be. A blocked shot into the second row in the first half. An excellent job of rim-running for a finish, followed by clogging up the middle and getting his hands on a loose ball to send the action back the other way. Craig Smith is high on Keita, and it’s not hard to see why.

• TV decision-makers did Utah no favors with a 9 p.m. tip on a Monday night for its opener. The announced attendance was 5,878. The actual number was probably 20% of that. Yes, the opponent surely had something to do with that, but so did the time on a weeknight.

• Branden Carlson played a physical game on Monday night, which was almost never the case early in his career.