Runnin’ Utes’ Rollie Worster’s status in doubt after ankle injury at Arizona State

Utah is already without Gabe Madsen, who suffered a high-ankle sprain on Jan. 28 at Oregon

Losing one starter from a short rotation was a significant problem for the University of Utah basketball team.

Facing the prospect of missing a second starter has turned that problem dire.

Echoing what he said Monday evening during his weekly ESPN700 radio show, Utes head coach Craig Smith said Tuesday morning during his weekly press conference that he does not expect third-year sophomore point guard Rollie Worster to play Thursday night against No. 4 UCLA at the Huntsman Center (9 p.m., Fox Sports 1).

Early in the second half of a 67-59 loss at Arizona State on Saturday night, Worster appeared to twist his ankle as he came down from a driving layup attempt. Worster stayed down momentarily, was helped to his feet, and eventually disappeared to the locker room with 16:33 to play. He did not return.

“I would be surprised if he plays, I’ll just put it that way,” Smith said. “Not saying something couldn’t change. You know how those things go, they can change pretty rapidly sometimes, but we’re not holding our breath.”

Worster’s injury is officially being called a lower-leg injury, but on both Monday and Tuesday, Smith intimated that it is a left ankle injury.

Utah is already without second-leading scorer Gabe Madsen, who suffered a high-ankle sprain at Oregon on Jan. 28. The timeline on Madsen is 4-6 weeks. Saturday will mark four weeks since Madsen’s injury, but he is not believed to be near-ready for competition. Utah hosts USC on Saturday night at the Huntsman Center, before finishing the regular season March 4 at Colorado. The Pac-12 Tournament begins March 8 in Las Vegas at T-Mobile Arena.

“Rollie’s as tough as they come, he’s a competitive, competitive guy,” Smith said of the Utah State transfer, who is averaging 8.7 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 5.1 assists through 28 games. “When he went down against Arizona State, just kind of how he reacted, and you watch him and you see him, if he can’t go, it’s probably not a great thing, because he’s one that will power through it typically.”

Smith’s already-thin bench is about to get thinner. With Worster out most of the second half against Arizona State, sophomore guard Lazar Stefanovic, who has been starting in place of Madsen, took over most of the ball-handling duties, while intriguing freshman Wil Exacte played a season-high 22 minutes

Exacte has taken on a larger, more consistent role for most of the last month and would seem to be a reasonable option as the fifth starter alongside Stefanovic, Marco Anthony, Ben Carlson and Branden Carlson.

Smith could also choose to go with seldom-used point guard Mike Saunders Jr. Saunders Jr., a transfer from Cincinnati, has played a total of four minutes since Jan. 21.

“The message is, we might be different again, and there’s going to be some different guys that are going to have to do some different things and be in different roles. We, as coaches, need to evaluate everything, from who’s playing, your scheme, what are we going to do differently to beat UCLA and USC.”

The chances for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament all but disappeared in the desert over the weekend, but Utah (17-11, 10-7 Pac-12) remains in a favorable position to wind up in the NIT in Smith’s second season. Based on various NIT bracketology projections, the Utes are currently in line for a top-4 seed and at least one home game. Utah has not been to the postseason since 2018, when it lost to Penn State in the NIT championship game at Madison Square Garden.