Utah men’s basketball sees shades of Cougar blue in NIT semifinal

The Runnin’ Utes face the Indiana State on Tuesday evening.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Gabe Madsen (55) looks for an open man, as Iowa Hawkeyes guard Tony Perkins (11) defends, in NIT Second Round action at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, on Sunday, March 24, 2024.

As the Utah men’s basketball team prepares to play Indiana State in the NIT semifinals, the Utes say their in-state rival might just help them out.

The Runnin’ Utes (22-14) face the Sycamores (31-6) on Tuesday at 5 p.m. in the famed Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, a matchup that will be televised on ESPN. The Sycamores feature three players that shoot at least 40% from the 3-point line, and shoot 38.3% as team — 11th in the country.

When asked how Indiana State presents on film, Utah players likened it to — you guessed it — BYU.

“I would say BYU,” Branden Carlson said. “They shot the three-point well. So that’s a lot of emphasis for us and something that we really had to dial into is defending the three.”

Gabe Madsen added: “Just the way they played through their five, really look similar to how Indiana State plays and obviously shoot a lot of threes and play fast in transition. It’s pretty identical, I’d say, to BYU.”

BYU big man Aly Khalifa made waves this season with his pinpoint passing and low turnover rate, connecting the team’s offense and being a huge reason the Cougars made the NCAA Tournament this year.

Indiana State’s comp is Robbie Avila, who scores 17.3 points per game, shoots nearly 39% from the 3-point line, averages four assists per game, and has nicknames like Cream Abdul-Jabbar, College Jokic and Milk Chamberlain.

“He’s a great player,” Carlson said of Avila. “I don’t think we have too many five-men in the Pac-12 that does what he does. He’s more of a stretch five, very skilled, can do a lot of different things. So we’re going to have to be very prepared to guard him, and we’re excited to go out and face them.”

Avila isn’t even Indiana State’s best 3-point shooter. Ryan Conwell, Julian Larry and Masen Miller all shoot above 40%.

BYU didn’t have any player shoot above 40%, but the Cougars still had Trevil Knell, Richie Saunders, Dallin Hall, Noah Waterman and Jaxson Robinson shooting in the mid- to high-30s.

Coach Craig Smith described the Sycamores as a “unique” team in the way they’re built. Players who can score in multiple ways, dynamic guards, efficient 3-point shooting, constantly looking for transition opportunities. But even Smith at least somewhat concurred with his players comparing Indiana State to BYU.

“There’s definitely some similarities there,” Smith said.