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Non-Conference Preview: Utah’s rebooting, but will it bottom out?

The Utes stalled under Larry Krystkowiak, and an offseason exodus left a new coach with just two rotation players. Yet, Craig Smith might have a roster that defends well and stitches together enough offense to be competitive.

NCAA Basketball: Southern California at Utah Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

In June 2017, Missouri announced a home-and-home deal with Utah, a Pac 12 program not far removed from a Sweet 16 run and seemingly entrenched in the top of Ken Pomeroy’s ratings. Five months later, the Utes boat-raced the Tigers in Salt Lake City, whose overhauled roster was making its first road foray under Cuonzo Martin.

How long would MU have to wait for a return affair? Try four years. And when the Utes at long last fulfill their end of the bargain, they’ll arrive in Columbia in a much different state of affairs.

Since then, the Utes stalled out under coach Larry Krystkowiak, who went 45-42 overall, steadily sank to the bottom half of a weak power conference, and never sniffed another NCAA tournament bid. Meanwhile, the transfer portal was popular with the program long before players were granted a one-time exemption to change locales. In Krystkowiak’s 10-year tenure, only four players exhausted their eligibility.

That backsliding performance and roster instability prompted athletic director Mark Harlan to move one from Krystkowiak in March. And while his search lasted just 11 days, yielding Craig Smith from nearby Utah State, a coaching change and free hall pass from the NCAA couldn’t prevent a mass exodus. Eight players transferred, while the overall churn saw the Utes shed 76 percent of scoring, 67 percent of rebounding, and 83 percent of assists from a squad that finished a mediocre 12-13 last season.

Admittedly, Mizzou’s in a similar position when it comes to rebooting, spending this offseason trying to form cohesion among five freshmen, four transfers and three returners. However, the Tigers’ coaching staff boasts ample continuity, and its blueprint is presumably less ad hoc than what confronted Smith and the Utes.

Typically, a non-conference date against a fellow high-major, especially one with Utah’s subtly sound pedigree, would be a notable date on the calendar. Instead, this December meeting could serve as an early inspection of each program’s overhaul.

NCAA Basketball: Pac-12 Media Day Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Head Coach | Craig Smith | First Season

Rebuilds are nothing new for Smith. In 2014, South Dakota plucked the Minnesota native from Tim Miles’ staff at Nebraska and was rewarded with a regular-season Summit League title three years later. Over four seasons, Smith elevated the Coyotes from 219th in KenPom to 81st by 2018.

That performance piqued the interest of Utah State, which was looking to recapture the consistency that had lapsed since Stew Morrill exited the program three years earlier.

Upon arriving in Logan, which sits just 90 minutes north of Salt Lake City, Smith convinced Sam Merrill to stick with the program, where the guard blossomed into the Mountain West Conference Player of the Year and honorable mention All-American. Smith also proved adept at unearthing gems on the recruiting circuit, such as Portuguese big man Neemias Queta, who became one of the nation’s premier rebounders and rim protectors en route to being taken 39th overall in the NBA draft.

In just three seasons, the Aggies had the revitalization they coveted in the form of a 74-23 record and a pair of NCAA tournament bids. It also caught the eye of the state’s power conference program, which could offer more money and a bigger platform. The roster? Not so much.

He totes with him a system that played at a throttled down pace at Utah State and titled toward the defensive end of the floor. The Aggies finished eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom, including fifth in defensive rebounding rate and third in block rate. Offensively, USU was anchored by its frontline of Queta and Justin Bean, who sometimes offset slipshod ball-handling in the backcourt. A season earlier, Merrils’ absurd efficiency (126.0 offensive rating) and 3-point stroke (41.0) and the consistency of Diago Brito papered over those deficiencies.

It’s a given that playing time will hinge on defensive reliability, but the nature of this roster makes any other schematic statement pure speculation. What we do know is Smith’s teams don’t bottom out. So, at a minimum, expect the Utes to guard, crash the boards and execute a scout.

Huh, does that sound familiar?

Series History | Utah leads 2-0

When MU walked into the Huntsman Center back in November 2017, the dominant storyline was how soon Michael Porter, Jr. might grace the lineup with his presence. That, and a 35-game losing streak on the road. Hopes were snuffed out on both fronts. Porter remained in Columbia, and the Utes blitzed MU, who put up a putrid shooting performance in a 77-59 rout.

The Tigers clanked their first nine 3-point attempts, while big man David Collette, who finished with 24 points, ate up MU on the interior. Trailing 35-19 at halftime, the Tigers had more personal fouls (10) and turnovers (10) than possessions that ended in points. Afterward, Martin was asked whether MPJ’s status remained day to day. “I’ll find out more when we get home,” he replied.

As for the first meeting in this series, the circumstances were certainly unique. Admittedly, the 1977-78 season was far from remarkable for the Tigers, which limped to an 11-15 record in the regular season. But over three days at Kemper Arena, the Larry Drew-led outfit reeled off three wins and snagged a Big Eight Conference Tournament title – and an NCAA tournament bid.

Shipped off to Wichita, they ran into the Utes, who earned an at-large bid after going 22-5 in the regular season. Utah was the favorite on paper, but the Tigers, who have found themselves on the wrong side of first-round upsets, tried to play spoiler.

Inside Levitt Arena, they led by eight with six minutes remaining in regulation before Utah rallied to force overtime. However, the roles quickly reversed when Missouri came back from five down to force a second overtime. With a little more than a minute to go, Drew pulled MU within 81-79, but the full-court press rolled out by Norm Stewart didn’t force a timely takeaway. Instead, Buster Matheny capped a 36-point outburst with a 3-point play, and the Utes survived 88-79 to move on to the Sweet 16.

NCAA Basketball: Mountain West Conference Tournament- Utah St vs UNLV Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

What about the team now?

Of all the Utes’ departures, three created most of the crater that awaited Smith: Timmy Allen, Alfonso Plummer, and Pelle Larsson.

Roughly 57.1 percent of Utah’s possessions flowed through them, and the trio accounted for 54.1 percent of the team’s scoring, 41.5 percent of its rebounding, and 51.3 percent of its distribution. Allen’s decision to transfer to Texas, taking 17.2 points and 6.4 rebounds along with him, looms most significant of all. You don’t just grab an All-Pac 12 player out of the portal.

Surveying the remaining roster didn’t take long. Smith inherited just two rotation pieces. Fortunately, center Branden Carlson (9.4 ppg and 4.6 rpg) could be a reliable anchor on the backline after blocking 7.9 percent shots while on the floor and grabbing 18.0 percent of defensive rebounds. Aside from the 7-footer, the Utes held on to 6-foot-9 forward Riley Battin, who saw his role pared back last season but could become a floor-spacing hybrid if his jump-shooting (34.2 3FG%) becomes more consistent.

Beyond that? The four other returners combined for just 2 percent of scoring. But, of that group, Lahat Thioune, a 6-foot-10 junior, might carve out a niche as a rim-running big on the break and a savvy roller in the half-court.

If you’re accounting at home, that’s one returning starter, a flexible small-ball forward, and an end-of-the-bench big. Suffice it to say, the rest of Utah’s slate was blank. To fill it in, Smith turned to a crew of familiar faces.

For starters, he brought two players from his former home along for the ride. Let’s start with Marco Anthony, a grad transfer who posted 10.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 3.1 assists at USU last season. No, the 6-foot-5 wing isn’t the most efficient offensive threat (0.79 PPP) and had a minus-2.5 net rating, per Synergy Sports tracking data. The trade-off is Smith was voted to the Mountain West’s All-Defense team and is a dogged on-ball stopper, only allowing 0.655 PPP and 35.6 percent shooting when guarding pick-and-rolls.

The other Aggie coming south is sophomore point guard Rollie Worster (9.1 ppg and 3.5 apg), whose poise and vision belied his youth last season. Still, his turnover rate (24.2) was roughly equal to his assist rate (24.5). At first glance, the metrics don’t speak well for him as a creator in ball screens (0.722 PPP). But it doesn’t help that USU made just 5 of the 27 jumpers he facilitated. And if Anthony nags dribblers, Worster grades out well off the ball, closing down spot-ups and chasing shooters around screens.

The other familiar face has burned Smith’s stingy defenses. UNLV combo guard David Jenkins Jr. (14.8 ppg) dumped 33 points on the Aggies last season, and he gave Smith fits when he suited up at South Dakota State in rivalry tilts against South Dakota. His preferred method: any jumper launched with an inch of daylight.

Almost 88.7 percent of the senior’s shots last season were jumpers, netting 1.058 PPP and a 52.7 true-shooting percentage. What’s most impressive is he canned 41 of 87 contested spot-ups. That kind of range – and the presence of Anthony – offsets mediocre defending (0.931 PPP).

The last guard imported is known to Smith and Utes’ fans: Both Gach. After spending last season at Minnesota, the senior boomeranged back to SLC, where he started his collegiate career. Once coach Richard Pitino was booted, Gach (6.8 ppg and 3.7 rpg) entered the portal for a second time. While at South Dakota, Smith recruited Gach as a high school prospect, and he wooed him when he moved on to USU and Gach was transferring for the first time. The question now is whether the 6-6 wing receives a waiver to be eligible this season.

The only newcomer unknown to Smith fortified his frontcourt. Illinois State transfer Dusan Mahorcic (9.9 peg and 7.2 rpg) is a rugged big who can jostle for space and finish creatively around the rim. The 6-foot-10 senior’s approach is a stark contrast to Carlson, Battin, and Thioune.

Pulling back, Smith’s handiwork doesn’t look half bad — under the circumstances. Even if Gach must sit, he’s still equipped with five upperclassmen who look like rotational stalwarts, while Worster is a sophomore with ample experience from an NCAA tournament team. At least four of those players — Anthony, Worster, Mahorcic, and Carlson — project as quality defenders to meet Smith’s systematic needs.

But there’s an obvious critique: How efficiently will this team produce points? Right now, there are only two double-digit scorers on the roster, and they’re both moving up from the Mountain West. Only Carlson sports an efficiency rating (109.8) approaching above average, and it came on usage (19.2% possession) you’d expect from a role player. Finally, when it comes to gauging on-court impact, Jenkins, who made UNLV seven points better per 100 possessions, is far and away the standout.

Do the rotation and roles remain a mystery? How will mid-major players handle the high-major jump? And just what kind of depth does Smith have?

Smith doesn’t know those answers now, but he should have some clarity when the Utes show up to Mizzou Arena in December. The timing could prove precarious, too. It’s sandwiched between a pair of rivalry games against potential top-10 teams—and the day after MU wraps up finals week. Even if Utah’s scuffling a bit, Cuonzo Martin’s roster skews younger and will have plenty on its mind.

What it can expect is to confront a program whose ethos is close to a carbon copy. We’ll see which version prevails.