Runnin’ Utes basketball: 3 things to know about Utah’s 77-63 win over Washington State

Branden Carlson scored a career-high 28 points on 11-for-12 shooting as the Utes snapped a three-game losing streak.

The University of Utah men’s basketball team defeated Washington State on Thursday evening at the Huntsman Center, 77-63, to snap a three-game losing streak. Here are the takeaways.

Branden Carlson, Keba Keita, and the big-big lineup

Before anyone knew what he was actually capable of within Craig Smith’s system, you took one look at freshman forward Keba Keita upon arrival last summer and there was one question that should have come to mind immediately.

What might a lineup with Keita and Branden Carlson look like?

Most of the time, Smith goes smaller, with Ben Carlson starting next to Branden Carlson, with long stretches of Marco Anthony and Lazar Stefanovic playing wing/frontcourt minutes with the latter Carlson manning the middle. Thursday night offered an extended look at what a Keita-Carlson lineup could look like.

Smith has been wanting to trot that lineup out for a while, but he had to get everyone to that point. Keita is getting rotation minutes, but still raw and learning, while Carlson needs to be a more able perimeter defender.

“It’s harder than it seems,” Smith said. “B.C. can stretch it and shoot it wherever he’s at, but that also can be a big advantage when you’re the five because it’s hard to guard. Bigs aren’t used to guarding like that.

“When it’s B.C. and Keita together, one of those guys has to be able to guard on the perimeter, and it’s not just mano e mano, you have to have a different feel for spacing on defense, rotations, and help side. There’s a lot of nuances. B.C. is like, ‘I played the five my whole life, this is new for me.’ He has an attitude that craves improvement, so we’ve been messing around with that a lot more.”

With 2:54 remaining in the first half of a tie game that Carlson had already methodically taken over, Keita checked in, and Carlson, for that stretch, looked like the best player in the Pac-12.

Utah center Branden Carlson (35) dunks against Washington State during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

A 3-pointer from the left elbow, another triple off the secondary break following his defensive rebound, a couple of free throws after a strong move at the rim, a second-chance dunk after a Keita offensive rebound.

A 29-all tie quickly turned into a 10-point lead, Utah eventually taking a 39-31 advantage to the locker room. Carlson had 21 first-half points on 8-for-8 shooting, including 3-for-3 deep on his way to a career-high 28 for the night on 11-for-12 from the floor. The fact Keita finished with four rebounds and no shot attempts belies the impact he had in 10 minutes, none of which were more important than that final 2:54 of the first half.

Smith and his staff will keep looking at that big-big lineup, and how much more it pops up bears watching as Utah faces Washington Saturday, then travels to the Oregon schools next weekend.

It doesn’t feel like Keita is going to play extensive minutes (he averages about 11 and hasn’t played more than 15 in a game in six weeks), but one thing to pay attention to is whether or not he starts taking more minutes from Ben Carlson. More times than not, it feels like Utah is more effective with Anthony in that spot and, at least in spurts, Keita.

Utah had answers

On one hand, Utah (13-7, 6-3 Pac-12) was up 14 on two different occasions early in the second half and could never fully put Washington State away. That’s noteworthy, and Smith agreed.

On the other hand, the Cougars legitimately threatened twice inside the final 9:00, and each time, the Utes responded.

Utah up just five at 53-48 with 9:27 left after a Mouhamed Gueye layup. Out of a 30-second timeout, a halfcourt set finds Gabe Madsen for 3. A defensive stop, Marco Anthony at the rim, plus one, Stefanovic with a short jumper after he got into lane. Utes up 12.

Utah up just six at 64-58 with 4:28 left. A driving layup from Stefanovic pushes it back to eight. A short time later with the lead at seven, Stefanovic bangs a triple from the right wing after Carlson recognized the double team and kicked the ball to the opposite side. The next time down, off a second chance, Carlson with a 15-foot turnaround jumper that went off the window, plus the foul, for a 12-point lead after the free throw with 1:57 left.

Beyond Carlson, who really played a smart second half after Washington State started bringing a second defender on the entry pass, no one on Utah blew you away, but multiple guys were just solid. Worster had 14 points, seven rebounds, four assists and zero turnovers. Madsen hit some shots after a string of tough shooting efforts. Stefanovic had the jumper going, Anthony was physically imposing on both ends for all of his 35 minutes.

This version of Utah, with Carlson spearheading, everyone else filling in, and a superb collective defensive effort — Washington State shot just 34.4% from the floor and 26.3% from deep — is good enough to beat almost anyone in the Pac-12. That stuff had been lacking for most of the last two weeks, but it was present on Thursday.

What the encore looks like on Saturday against a Washington team Utah “should” beat will be interesting.

Everybody circled the wagons after Los Angeles

What this Utah season is and what it could still be felt like questions that were difficult to answer going into Thursday.

The Utes were 12-4 overall, 5-0 in the Pac-12 and on the NCAA Tournament bubble going into a Jan. 7 game against an Oregon team that has not looked much like your quintessential Dana Altman Ducks team. Utah dropped a 70-60 decision that may look better down the road, but for now, looks pretty bad from a metrics standpoint.

Carlson missed a 68-49 loss to UCLA on Jan. 12 due to illness, then was terrific two nights later against USC, but didn’t get any help from anyone in a 71-56 loss.

Utah head coach Craig Smith shouts to his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Washington State, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

All of a sudden, you’re 12-7 overall, 5-3 in the Pac-12, you’re well off the bubble, and the Washington schools coming to the Huntsman Center this week felt like a bit of a crossroads. If you think you’re something, if you think this season can still be something at the end, you have to get both of these. You have to take care of home against teams you should probably beat.

Smith used the term “taking care of business” to describe Thursday. He, Worster and Carlson all said postgame that the Oregon-UCLA-USC stretch is not who this team is, and that time was spent between USC and Washington State getting back to basics.

Basics, as far as this Utah team goes, means defense and rebounding, two things these Utes have done well for most of this season. There is little evidence across 19 games that they can keep shooting 55.4% from the floor and 40.9% from deep like they did Thursday, but those numbers are out there. They’re possible if Carlson stays healthy, everything clicks and everyone does their job on a given night.

It’s not time to give up on this Utah team just yet.