Runnin’ Utes basketball: 3 things to know about Utah’s loss to No. 20 TCU

An opportunity lost as Utah finishes its non-conference schedule at 7-4, while sitting at 9-4 overall going back into Pac-12-play

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Gabe Madsen (55) fails to make the save as the University of Utah hosts the TCU Horned Frogs at Vivint Arena, Dec. 21, 2022.

The University of Utah men’s basketball team closed the non-conference portion of its schedule on Wednesday night with a 75-71 loss to No. 20 TCU at Vivint Arena. Here are the takeaways from the loss.

This was a lost opportunity

Utah turned the ball over 19 times against the Horned Frogs, with many of them coming on errant or, even worse, lazy passes into traffic. The Utes shot 13-for-21 from the free throw line. They yielded 46 points in the paint and within that number, just a slew of too-easy drives to the rim by capable, veteran guards, headlined by NBA prospect Mike Miles.

The game was tied at 46, Utah got a stop, then Rollie Worster hoisted up a 3-pointer early in the shot clock that missed. An ugly Keba Keita turnover at the top of the key out of a halfcourt set went the other way for an Emmanuel Miller transition layup and a TCU lead.

Miles broke a 52-all tie with a transition layup after Miller blocked Gabe Madsen’s 3-point attempt and sent the action the other way on the break.

A 54-all tie stayed that way after Marco Anthony missed a free throw in trying to complete a 3-point play.

In talking about all this postgame, Utah head coach Craig Smith referenced what he believed was his team’s lack of grit over the final 10, 12 minutes of the first half, a juncture where TCU assumed control of the game and never fully gave it up. To Smith, grit entails gaining 50-50 balls, rebounding, then, as he put it, “having the mental fortitude and strength to step up to the plate and make your free throws, and make your layups.”

Specifically, with the 50-50 balls and rebounding, Utah didn’t do nearly enough of that during that first-half stretch. TCU, which has won nine straight and is looking like a factor near the top of a loaded Big 12, was in-your-face defending on the perimeter, more physical, quicker to those loose balls, more willing to step forward and set a tone. The Utes were decidedly better in the second half in erasing a 10-point deficit to tie the game on multiple occasions, but that first-half stretch was telling.

A year ago when these teams played in Fort Worth, Utah hung around in a game it never had control of. On Wednesday night, with the Utes improved from a year ago, playing mostly well during the month of December, and challenging the same TCU team that is again eyeing the NCAA Tournament, they merely hung around for most of a game they never controlled.

“I think a lot of is just consistency and having a mindset all the time,” Smith said. “I have no doubt we can do it, we just have to keep doing it consistently. I thought we showed it tonight for a lot of the game, but we had that 10-minute stretch and that’s the difference. I’ve said it many times, this is big-boy basketball and you’re not going to be perfect, but you have to be able to play tough all the time and with some discipline. We clearly have to do a better job of valuing possessions. At the end of the day, I think that was the biggest thing.”

Added Madsen, who scored 26 points on 8-for-19 shooting, while committing five of those 19 turnovers: “Turnovers, I had five myself, so that’s the No. 1 thing. We lost a lot of possessions, we didn’t get our shots, and they scored off turnovers. Obviously they’re aggressive, but they can’t be an excuse. Personally, I made some bad decisions and I was out of control.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) with the dunk in the second half as the University of Utah hosts the TCU Horned Frogs at Vivint Arena, Dec. 21, 2022.

Why is Mike Saunders Jr. not playing?

In terms of Smith’s personnel and what the rotation looks like, this is far and away the No. 1 topic I get questions about. Why is the third-year sophomore transfer from Cincinnati not playing, especially on a night like Wednesday when Rollie Worster looked sped up and had a lot of trouble with the ball pressure TCU presented?

I directly asked Smith about this situation postgame.

“It’s just consistency in practice and just keep getting better,” Smith said. “There are just some things that he needs to keep doing to get himself onto the floor.”

That answer was expectedly vanilla, as was the case when the topic was broached on Saturday after Saunders Jr., who has played double-digit minutes in a game just once since Nov. 17, was a DNP-CD. He was again a DNP-CD on Wednesday against TCU, but this instance was far more glaring.

Smith has said and shown over a long period of time that he trusts Worster. He believes and he is correct that Worster is his best option at point guard, but on Wednesday, Worster, who generally fills up a stat sheet and has flirted with a triple-double on a couple of occasions this season, was bad. He shot 1-for-10 from the floor, 0-for-3 from 3-point range, and threw the ball all over the place early in the game as TCU set the tone.

Smith is extending Worster too far, too much of the time. He knows it, but if you don’t believe you can throw Saunders Jr. out there for spells, if at all, what choice do you have but to keep extending Worster, who played 31 minutes on Wednesday and is averaging just north of that number for the season.

If Worster is off the floor, you’re looking at Lazar Stefanovic as your primary ball handler. Sometimes that’s fine, and sometimes it leaves something to be desired. At one point early in the second half, Smith pulled Worster and had a backcourt of Stefanovic, Madsen, and Marco Anthony. That’s feasible, but struck me as less than ideal. It felt like Smith was trying to steal Worster some rest and get him all the way through the under-12 timeout, but wound up going back to him with 12:42 on the clock.

Two-part bottom line: Worster has been solid for Smith. He’s going to keep playing heavy minutes. If Smith thought Saunders Jr. could help, he would be out there. Don’t overthink that second part, folks.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) with the dunk in the second half as the University of Utah hosts the TCU Horned Frogs at Vivint Arena, Dec. 21, 2022.

The OOC is complete, and the resume takes shape

Utah finished its non-conference schedule at 7-4. It was a play or two away from beating Mississippi State on a neutral floor in Florida. It was handled by Sam Houston, and mostly the same by BYU and TCU.

Objectively, from a metrics/resume perspective, the Utes do not have a bad loss. Sam Houston and Mississippi State are both Quadrant 1 losses, at BYU and TCU on a neutral floor are both Quadrant 2 losses. Those can change as the season moves along, but for now, that’s where we are, and of importance, Utah has no Quadrant 3/4 losses, which are resume killers.

So, with the resume being what it is right now, are there enough opportunities against a mostly-down Pac-12 where this Utah can get to where it wants to go?

“Yeah, I think so,” Smith said, “You look around the league, I think the league struggled early, but got on more of an even kilter with a really good December. We’ll see what happens, I just think that we’ve put ourselves in a position to be in a position. At the same time, it’s Dec. 21 and it’s fun for fans and everyone to talk about all that stuff. At the end of the day, we can control what we can control, which is being our best every night and playing the schedule we have in front of us. I’d like to think that if we can do that, good things will happen.”

For what it’s worth, Smith is no stranger to matters of resumes and Bracketology as all three of his teams at Utah State were season-long bubble squads. The ‘19 team was going to the NCAA Tournament had it not won the Mountain West Tournament to claim the automatic bid. The ‘20 team was probably the same, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic canceled that NCAA Tournament. The ‘21 team did enough to get off the bubble and get in as an 11-seed.

Outside of UCLA and Arizona, and to a lesser extent Arizona State and USC, the Pac-12 is in rough shape. It is, at best right now, a four-bid league. That said, yeah, Utah could have used that win over TCU, which probably gets up to a Quadrant 1 down the road, but there should be enough opportunities for Utah to at least be in the mix if it handles business.

At a minimum, the NIT, complete with a top-4 seed and at least one home game, has presented itself as a real possibility. I said this in the preseason, but something like 17-18 wins and a trip to the NIT would mark real, tangible progress in year two under Smith, but in fairness, the math and maybe the expectations began shifting the minute Utah beat Arizona back on Dec. 1.

There are 18 regular-season games to go, plus the Pac-12 Tournament. Settle in.