Utah Utes mailbag: The Runnin’ Utes can be a tourney team next year if ...

Plus: Andy Ludwig’s offense, SLC’s best breakfast, and more.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes head coach Craig Smith talks with players during a timeout as the University of Utah hosts the TCU Horned Frogs at Vivint Arena, Dec. 21, 2022.

No matter how this season ends for the University of Utah men’s basketball team, there is a sense that the program is ahead of schedule under head coach Craig Smith in his second season.

Assuming the Utes remain on an upward trajectory, is it safe to start dreaming of something bigger next season? We’re going to start this Utes mailbag right there.

Do you have a question for Utes beat reporter Josh Newman? Send it to him via a tweet, direct message him on Twitter, email him at jnewman@sltrib.com, or leave it in the comments section at the end of this article and he will answer them in his weekly mailbag.

Q: “Runnin’ Utes getting some traction. What does next year’s team look like, and if Branden Carlson plays one more year, what is their 2023-24 ceiling?” - @leftcoastute

A: Five years ago, you could look at a roster and at least reasonably assume who would be coming back the following season.

The dynamics of roster construction have changed, though, mostly due to the NCAA Transfer Portal and immediate eligibility for first-time transfers. For the purposes of this exercise, let’s break out the crystal ball and make some assumptions.

Utah currently has one open scholarship to use for 2023-24. Carlson, Jaxon Brenchley and Bostyn Holt are all in their fourth year of college, but have an extra year of eligibility thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Let’s assume Carlson comes back, which immediately makes Utah at least a little scary next season.

Looking up and down the roster, I don’t think there’s any one scholarship player you can point to as an obvious transfer candidate. Brenchley has played sparingly, as has Mike Saunders Jr., but the rest of the projected rotation all have reasons to stick around.

That said, someone is going to leave. That’s not a knock on Craig Smith, but merely the nature of the sport these days.

Utah has taken gigantic steps forward in some areas, but I maintain the Utes need more size and could use more scoring along the perimeter. If you bring back the bulk of the core, I think you’re in good shape. Adding high-scoring SLCC guard Hunter Erickson next winter is a plus.

If Carlson comes back, I think the Utes’ have NCAA Tournament potential.

Q: “When do we have a conversation about what historical tier of Ute greats Branden Carlson fits? The final answer to that question might have to wait until the end of the season (maybe even the end of next season), but his career achievements are starting to add up?” - @VegasUte

A: Trying to decide where Carlson fits in Runnin’ Utes lore has never crossed my mind.

I think we’re jumping the gun on this. Even if we did decide to dive all the way in on this now, I don’t think Carlson makes as much progress up the ladder as some may think.

Carlson is in the middle of an All-Pac-12 season, averaging 17 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game, but he’s averaging 11.2 points and 5.3 rebounds across 99 career games. That said, he has clearly improved each season, and in this particular season, Utah looks radically different when he is not on the floor.

By no fault of his own, Carlson has played on mediocre, if not bad teams. He has never been to the NCAA Tournament, although that could change if Utah cashes in some opportunities down the stretch here.

Ultimately, you really can’t answer this question because if Carlson comes back in 2023-24 for a fifth and final season, that means he still has roughly 45 games left in his career. That’s a lot of games left to start writing his place in program history.

Q: “What’s it going to take for Mike Saunders Jr. to get on the floor?” - @jhallito

A: We covered this topic after the loss to TCU, for which Saunders Jr. was a DNP-CD, just as he was days earlier vs. BYU.

What’s it going to take Saunders Jr. to get on the floor? Probably something injury-related to Rollie Worster, because Worster has and will continue to get heavy minutes. Worster has been excellent most of the season. Not all of it, but most of it, and is very clearly Smith’s best, arguably only option at the point. If it’s not Worster, Lazar Stefanovic is getting ball-handling duties, and increasingly, so is Wil Exacte.

I’ll say this again, and then let’s move forward: Saunders Jr. has not been consistent enough in practice. He hasn’t done enough to warrant rotation minutes, and at this point, it’s hard to see any coming. If Smith felt compelled to play Saunders Jr. in a meaningful spot, he would play Saunders Jr. in a meaningful spot.

Q: “Can Andy Ludwig be more creative to preserve the health of top players in 2023? Kuithe and Curry were bad luck, but Rising and Kincaid injuries were from overuse. Kincaid especially at the end of Washington State. Why not more Nate Johnson and creative plays (jet sweeps, etc)?” - @MCrouse_

A: There’s a lot going on here.

Why do we think Kincaid was injured because of overuse? If I remember correctly, the shoulder injury at Washington State came after a couple of hits during normal action. He was not targeted an inordinate number of times that night. The back injury at Colorado was an awkward fall on a touchdown pass. Again, part of the game.

Rising’s knee injury occurred in the first USC game, which was quite physical and left guys on both sides banged up. Overuse? Well, he is the quarterback, and USC had no answer for him that night. But yeah, being in on 54 of the 76 plays Utah ran that night, including 11 runs is a lot.

You want your best guys to have the ball and make plays. Kincaid and Rising were two of Utah’s best offensive players, so they had the ball a lot. It’s a violent sport, injuries are going to happen.

Why not Nate Johnson and more creative plays? Utah averaged 38.6 points per game and had the No. 11 scoring offense in the country.

Next question.

Q: “Best breakfast spot in SLC?” - @johncanzanobft

A: Salt Lake City has a lot of really good breakfast spots. I haven’t been to all of them, but I’ve been to enough.

I really like Eggs in the City. I really like Ruth’s Diner, especially on a warm day when you can sit outside. I really like Park Cafe. Oasis Cafe is a gem.

I’ve decided the best breakfast spot in the area is Roots Cafe in Millcreek. Very warm, very friendly vibe and the food is excellent. Hit the eggs benedict, and if you don’t want the carbs from the English muffin, you can do a polenta cake instead. The breakfast burrito also doesn’t disappoint.

On topic, I miss the Blue Plate Diner.

Q: “Something I’ve always wondered about sports reporters. What is the greatest sporting event you have covered and why?” - @RedSoxRooskie

A: This question comes up every so often, and each time, I usually hate my answer and want a do-over. Honestly, I’ve seen some cool stuff and I’ve experienced certain events and venues that I used to daydream about. Young journalists could cobble together a worse career than I’ve been fortunate to experience.

Here’s one thing that always stands out when I take stock of things. I covered most of Linsanity back during the 2011-12 season for NBA.com. That was among the most ridiculous string of days and games I’ve ever experienced. Every night at Madison Square Garden had a playoff atmosphere.

Quick anecdote: Jeremy Lin kicked off the craziness on a Saturday night at the Garden against the Nets by scoring 25 points off the bench. Inside the Knicks’ locker room, Lin’s locker was next to Amar’e Stoudemire’s. As the media was let in the locker room, everyone swarmed to Lin’s locker. The scrum of reporters was three deep and Lin had his back to us as he finished getting dressed. He turned around and had no idea what to make of it. Stoudemire, who normally drew a lot of media postgame, just laughed at Lin, then left.

I thought that night was a cool story, but a one-time thing. I was half right.

Q: “Is the athletic department going to do anything special to drum up interest and attendance for the USC/UCLA homestand? TV, Radio ads? Outreach to youth organizations to fill the upper bowl (even if they have to give away tickets?)” - @gdorius

A: When was the last time you saw a local TV ad pertaining specifically to Utah men’s basketball?

When we spoke to Utah’s head of fan experience and marketing, Matt Thomas, last week, it was clear they were pointing towards specifically the USC game to try and get the lower bowl filled.

The problem with the UCLA game is that it’s a 9 p.m. tip on a Thursday night. Regardless of how good Utah and UCLA are by the time Feb. 23 rolls around, starting a game that late just is not conducive to kids, families, anyone who has to wake up early for work the next morning. That’s tough because all things being equal, you should be able to draw more than 8,500 with a Final Four contender in town.

The USC game tip time is officially TBD, but is almost certainly going to be in the evening. If that game is on the early side, maybe 6 p.m. or so, I think that has a real chance to fill the lower bowl. In this case, Thomas did allude to the fact they would reach out to some groups and community partners in an effort to get the place full.