The TribUte newsletter: COVID eligibility will help dictate what Runnin’ Utes offseason looks like

Branden Carlson, Jaxon Brenchley, Bostyn Holt will go through Senior Night Saturday, but all three have the option to come back for 2023-24

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) as Utah hosts Colorado, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023.

As Senior Night for the University of Utah men’s basketball team arrives on Saturday, it is important to remember that while Craig Smith has three scholarship seniors, they may not be playing their final home games.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA made the 2020-21 season free in terms of eligibility. That means Branden Carlson, Jaxon Brenchley, and Bostyn Holt, all of whom are in their fourth year of college, still have one season left to play.

Holt could conceivably have two years left if he were to seek and the NCAA were to grant a medical hardship waiver after he tore his ACL after three games last season, but one thing at a time.

The only scholarship player on Smith’s roster who is out of eligibility after this season is Marco Anthony, meaning Utah has one open scholarship for 2023-24. In theory, Smith could have up to four, a number that does not take into account potential NCAA Transfer Portal defections from any other Utes.

With roster construction taking on new elements compared to years past, Smith said last month that he would consider gauging where those three stood in terms of future plans, but backtracked on that earlier this week, indicating he would wait until after the season to have such discussions.

“Maybe those things will come up, I haven’t quite decided, but I’ve never done that,” Smith said back in January. “I like to wait until the end of the year, there’s enough things to worry about.

“On the flip side of that, we’re always talking about recruiting as a staff and trying to be a step ahead. Obviously, we’re trying to evaluate our team, where we’re at, and what we might need depending on what scenarios present themselves with our roster. I’ve said before, our roster is not perfect yet, it is not where it needs to be. We have some really good pieces, certainly, but we have to keep growing it.”

It would be unfair to try and project what Carlson, Brenchley and Holt might do, but there are factors to consider as each player, per Smith, is set to graduate this spring.

• Carlson is not your typical college student. He is married and his wife is a law student at Utah, which means he might not be in a position to up and move, while trying to begin a professional career just yet.

• After playing a season-high 26 minutes on Feb. 5, Brenchley was asked about next year. He balked but did express his desire to play in an NCAA Tournament before his career is over.

• Holt is out of the rotation at this point, having attempted 22 shots all season while averaging 7.9 minutes across the 20 games he’s played entering Thursday’s visit from UCLA. Whether or not that improves next season isn’t an easy question to answer.

“It’s hard, but it’s the name of the game,” Smith said of trying to navigate COVID-related eligibility. “You can sit here and whine about it, or say it’s a great thing. It works both ways, but I know what reality is. You just have to be prepared. You’re always recruiting. Our staff is always like, ‘What do we need?’ Well, we need to recruit like we need everything, because we don’t know what we’re going to need. That’s the truth. That’s just the name of the game nowadays.”

Other things on my mind

• I spoke with Kyle Whittingham for about 20 minutes on Thursday morning on a variety of topics. We’ll start rolling that stuff out starting Monday, but for now, here’s one interesting nugget to whet the appetite.

Whittingham offered that Miki Suguturaga, a fifth-year junior who played in all 14 games, including nine starts, at defensive end in 2022, is moving to tight end this spring. On paper, Utah has a bit of a surplus at defensive end, assuming Van Fillinger and Jonah Elliss are healthy, and has a clear need at tight end, specifically one who can block in the run game. To that end, Whittingham brought up Logan Kendall’s role last season in speaking to the need for another tight end.

“It’s going to be something we experiment with this spring and see how he does there,” Whittingham told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Early indications are he’s going to be very good for us there. He’s looked good in winter workouts, but that’s something you’ll notice right out of the gate at spring ball, that he’s lining up at tight end. We know what he can do at defensive end. If it doesn’t work out, we know we can always go back to defensive end and he’ll give us quality reps, but we’re looking for somebody to fill that void that Logan Kendall left. What he did for us so important, particularly in the run game. We think he can be part of that solution.”

• As the eighth-ranked Utah women’s hoops team was polishing off Cal Thursday night in anticipation of No. 3 Stanford visiting Saturday, the selection committee did its latest and last top-16 reveal on ESPN. The committee had the Utes as the fourth No. 1 seed, which is noteworthy as the Pac-12 Tournament looms, but ultimately doesn’t mean anything.

Utes head coach Lynne Robert’s didn’t disagree on its meaning, or lack thereof.

“No (it doesn’t matter), but I think that’s a great goal,” Roberts said postgame. “I didn’t know that, that’s cool. I think that would be a tremendous accomplishment, and obviously a great starting point to start the tournament. I think that’s something we can strive for, but does it matter at this point? No.”

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