Utah basketball: Utes resume Pac-12 play Thursday at 1-12 California

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Utah guard Rollie Worster drives during game against TCU at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022. Worster has had a solid year for the Utes, but struggled in his last two outings.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

This season’s Pac-12 men’s basketball race doesn’t appear to be as daunting for the Utah men’s basketball team as it did a few months ago, for at least three reasons.

The first is that the Utes (9-4) are clearly better than expected, after being picked to finish 10th in the league in the preseason poll for the second straight year.

“I really liked the way we practiced the last two days. I thought we got a lot done. And we did a ton of five-on-five (Tuesday). I liked what I saw. It was highly competitive.” — Utah basketball coach Craig Smith

The second is that Utah showed its competitiveness level in the league with that 81-66 win over then-No. 4 Arizona back on Dec. 1, a victory that looks more and more impressive with each passing week. The now-No. 5 Wildcats (12-1) haven’t lost since, with wins over No. 14 Indiana in Las Vegas and No. 6 Tennessee in Tucson, adding to their standing as the Pac-12’s best team.

The third is that the conference isn’t that great in 2022-23, with No. 11 UCLA (11-2) the only other ranked team. USC (10-3) is receiving votes. Pac-12 teams are only 13-20 against Power Six conference opponents this season.

Three Pac-12 teams — Stanford, Washington State and California — enter the conference re-set with losing records and two — Oregon and Oregon State — are at 7-6 overall.

For the Utes, who are coming off nonconference losses to BYU and No. 18 TCU, the Pac-12 schedule resumes this weekend with them sitting at 2-0 and atop the league standings with UCLA, Arizona State and USC. At this point, anything less than a top-half finish would have to be considered a disappointment, given Utah’s start and the feeling that there are few, if any, impossible wins remaining on its schedule.

Coach Craig Smith’s Utes play at California (0-2, 1-12) on Thursday (8 p.m. MST) and Stanford on Saturday (2 p.m. MST) with a golden opportunity to start 4-0 in league play for the first time since the 2014-15 season when they eventually reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

Despite the losses to the Cougars and Horned Frogs, in which turnovers, poor shot selection and some uncharacteristically leaky defense thwarted their early December momentum, Smith is still bullish on his team and its chances of making some serious noise in the Pac-12.

But he’s not looking past the Bay Area foes, even though the Utes swept Cal and Stanford last year and will be looking for their first back-to-back road sweep (dating back to last season) since 2018-19.

“Just looking at the league, I just think there are going to be a lot of close games,” Smith said via Zoom Tuesday night after the Utes got in their second practice since returning to campus from the holiday break.

“Winning on the road is always very difficult, so if you can win those games, I think you are jumping the pack, so to speak.”

The coach said if last year, his first on the hill, taught him anything it was that no Pac-12 games are gimmes, even if Cal’s NET ranking is 319 (of 363 teams) and the Bears have won just once, a 73-51 victory over Texas-Arlington on Dec. 21 when Utah was falling to TCU.

The Utes’ NET ranking on Wednesday was 41; Saturday opponent Stanford’s NET ranking is 101.

The Pac-12 “got off to a slow start in November, but I thought it really kind of self-corrected and had a pretty good December overall,” Smith said. “And so I think (the league) has positioned itself to where we can get quite a few teams into the NCAA Tournament if things bounce a certain way.”

Will the resurgent Utes be one of those teams?

The pieces are in place, if they can stay healthy and rediscover the defense and 3-point shooting touch that carried them to the big win over Arizona. They have managed to stay reasonably healthy, although Smith said Tuesday that some guys are banged up a bit and the break came at a good time.

Junior guard Gabe Madsen was slowed by an ankle sprain against BYU, but bounced back in a big way against TCU, scoring a career-high 26 points in the loss. Madsen is shooting 41.8% from 3-point range (38 of 91) and is shooting better from outside the arc than inside (18 of 51, 35.3%).

A couple of players’ flights back to Salt Lake City were delayed Monday, so practice was pushed back to 8:15 p.m. Walk-on forward Hunter Mecum didn’t arrive back until Tuesday due to travel complications that many throughout the country experienced.

“I really liked the way we practiced the last two days,” Smith said. “(Monday), I thought we got a lot done. And we did a ton of five-on-five (Tuesday). I liked what I saw. It was highly competitive.”

Starting point guard Rollie Worster has struggled the past two games, and was especially ineffective against TCU at Vivint Arena. The Utah State transfer was 1 of 10 from the field and committed three turnovers.

Cincinnati transfer Mike Saunders did not see any action, and Smith hinted postgame that the DNP was due to practice performance more than anything Saunders has done in games.

“We have all got to be better,” Smith said. “Rollie has had a really good season up to this point. Obviously the last two nights have not been up to his standard or our standard. He will get through that. The emphasis for our whole team, certainly for Rollie, but (also) our whole team, is we gotta value the ball.”

The Utes had 19 turnovers against the Frogs.

“We gotta make better decisions, and the other part of it is shot selection,” Smith said. “At BYU, I thought that we took some bad shots. I am not sure why we took some of those. We had a few against TCU, but not nearly as many. When we didn’t turn it over, I thought we did some really good things in the half court.”

Utah men’s basketball coach Craig Smith watches his team lose against TCU at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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