Basketball in Utah: Why Struggling Runnin’ Utes Need an Emotional Leader

Basketball in Utah: Why Struggling Runnin’ Utes Need an Emotional Leader

Much has been made lately about the idea that the University of Utah men’s basketball team is in need of a close-up, go-to guy to perform in the absence of top scorer Branden Carlson, the seven-legged friend who spent a few weeks out while recovering from appendectomy on January 8.

It’s also clear, at least from this angle, that the Runnin’ Utes (8-8, 1-5), who have lost four consecutive Pac-12 games, need a floor leader, a fiery type who can collect the troops, prevent the struggling team from splintering and be that calming and confident voice in the locker room.

Not to forget, it’s a team of eight newcomers and a new coaching staff that is plagued by a bizarrely high number of injuries and illnesses, the latest of which is Carlson’s.

After the Utes forfeited a 14-point lead and lost to Washington 74-68, a loss followed by a 77-61 setback to Washington State, versatile wing Marco Anthony suggested he is a candidate to fill that role. as he is back from an ankle injury that left him with three games missing in late November and early December.

“I think I could do that much better by taking over this team,” said Anthony. “I’ve been on a national championship team (in Virginia). I’ve been on an NCAA Tournament team in the state of Utah and on a team that understands what it takes to get there, so maybe it’s me. I just have to lead more and do more at the end of the day.”

As it is, Anthony leads the Utes in rebounding (7.7 per game) and is fourth in scoring (9.0). He’s one of the better defenders on the team, maybe the best.

To turn the season around, “it has to be something where everyone is locked in, everyone is all in and we all achieve that one common goal, which is winning,” Anthony said. “Right now I think we’re saying we’re trying to do that, but the actions aren’t showing it.”

Anthony’s leadership and the overall buy-in from the other guys will be much needed as Utah gets into a rough patch on Saturday as it will play four games over the next eight days, barring a postponement due to health and safety protocols (COVID-19 breaks) .

Three of those games are against teams currently ranked No. 3 (UCLA), No. 5 (USC) and No. 6 (Arizona) in the Associated Press Top 25, although UCLA lost 84-81 in overtime to Oregon on Thursday night on empty Pauley Pavilion and will likely drop when the new rankings come out early next week.

Arizona, with a NET ranking of No. 2 and a Kenpom.com ranking of No. 6, crushed Colorado 76-55 Thursday and hosts the slumping Utes Saturday at 6 p.m. MST at McKale Center in Tucson.

The Wildcats (13-1, 3-0) are the biggest surprise in the Pac-12 under new coach Tommy Lloyd, the former longtime Gonzaga assistant.

Utah, which is number 128 in the NET rankings and number 114 on Kenpom.com, will play in Arizona State on Monday afternoon in a makeup game before UCLA is held at the Huntsman Center on Thursday and USC two days later.

On paper, Saturday’s matchup looks like a mismatch. Arizona outperforms opponents by a margin of 24.5 points and outperforms them by a margin of 10.6 points.

“Sometimes when you’re playing against an elite offensive team they may not be as good defensively, or you’re up against an elite defensive team they may not be as powerful,” said Utah coach Craig Smith. “They are both very good. … When you’re standing that high, there’s a reason for that.”

An early candidate for Pac-12 Player of the Year, Bennedict Mathurin averages 18.5 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, while shooting 50.8% from the floor. Azloulas Tubelis chips in 14.7 points and 6.3 rebounds.

Sophomore Pelle Larsson was playing his first season in Utah before the Mass Exodus last year when Larry Krystkowiak was fired, averaging 6.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists in about 18.2 minutes per game.

If there’s anything positive for the Utes, it’s that they still had a few days to prepare for the Wildcats when Thursday’s scheduled game against ASU was postponed last Tuesday.

Utah defeated Arizona 73-58 at the Huntsman Center last February, but that result will mean nothing on Saturday, as the only Utes who played in that game and are available this time around are Riley Battin (10 points) and Lahat Thioune (two points).

Coincidentally, Larsson was Utah’s second-best scorer in that game, with 14 points, four assists and three rebounds. Timmy Allen led the Utes by 18 points that day.

Arizona guard Pelle Larsson during game against Northern Colorado, Wednesday, December 15, 2021, in Tucson, Arizona. Larsson played his freshman season with the Utes.
Rick Scuteri, Associated Press

Allen is now in Texas, and his leadership is greatly missed.

Anthony is not the prolific goalscorer that Allen is, but he is better in other areas and seems to have the respect of his teammates.

“Marco has been a vocal leader from the beginning and a man I think most guys look up to and look to (for inspiration),” said Smith. “He’s a man who understands winning, whether it’s two years in Virginia and winning a national championship, or the two years in Utah. … So I’d say he’s been the consistent voice.”

Smith said the Utes are “a bit of a quiet team in some ways,” and one of the downsides of that is that they don’t communicate as well on the floor as they should.

“That’s part of the transition,” Smith said. “We all need to be on board and all-in when the going gets tough.”

And right now it’s very, very difficult.

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