When it lost 20 games last season, Utah struggled to make shots or shut down the opposition from scoring, particularly in Pac-12 Conference play.
While it’s going to be about a month before the Utes get an idea if they’ll compete better with conference foes, second-year coach Craig Smith believes they’ll be able to win more games than the 11 they managed in 2021-22.
Smith will get his first test of that theory Monday night when Utah opens its season in Salt Lake City against Long Island.
“I think our team is built with a lot of versatility,” he said. “We can play big-big and we can play small. We can play fast. We can have more of a knock-you-down-drag-out kind of lineup. I think that’s what the best teams have — they can play a lot of different ways.”
The Utes should certainly be able to play faster with the addition of Cincinnati transfer Mike Saunders, one of the quickest players in Division I. Saunders, who averaged 7.3 points and made 35.9 percent of his 3-pointers last year, should provide a nice complement to 7-0 senior center Branden Carlson (13.6 ppg, 6.0 rebounds).
As for LIU, it starts a new chapter. Former NBA All-Star Rod Strickland took the program over in late June after Derek Kellogg was fired following a five-year stint. Strickland has worked as an assistant at South Florida and with John Calipari at Kentucky.
The Sharks went 16-14 last year and 12-6 in the Northeast Conference, but lost three key players to the transfer portal, including Eral Penn, who averaged 17.1 points. Their top returning player is point guard Tre Wood (6.5 ppg, 3.9 assists).
“I got to figure out my team, figure out who’s who,” Strickland said. “We’ve been working hard, the guys have been focused and it will be exciting to see what product we put on the court.”
Utah won the lone previous meeting, 65-42 on Feb. 2, 1949 in Salt Lake City. It’s the start of a four-game homestand for the Utes.
–Field Level Media