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Utah Men’s Basketball Looking Forward To A Special Weekend

Feb 28, 2024, 4:10 PM

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SALT LAKE CITY – Just like the Utah women, the Runnin’ Utes will be celebrating Senior Night this weekend and saying “good-bye” to some very special athletes.

Obviously, Utah’s season hasn’t gone quite how they thought it would a month ago, but the opportunity is still there to slide into the NCAA Tournament as long as business is handled. That of course starts with sending Branden Carlson and Cole Bajema out the right way.

Head coach Craig Smith talked about his seniors’ impacts on the 2023-24 Runnin’ Utes and the mindset heading into the final stretch of games that will determine whether Utah is dancing or not.

Utah Celebrating The Seniors At Home

Last weekend was a rough one for Utah on the road at Colorado making the Utes even more eager to return home to the Huntsman and celebrate their seniors.

“It’s always great to be at home,” Smith said. “It feels like we haven’t been here in a while and it’s a special weekend for our whole program, but certainly for our seniors. Both of our guys- I certainly think it’s at a different level for our senior guys- specifically Branden.”

Carlsen did all the Senior Day festivities last season, but ultimately decided to return with his one year of eligibility left. It was a difference-making move for Utah and the finality of this truly being the record setting big man’s last time in the Huntsman will likely be very emotional.

“I know it’s going to be a lot different for him,” Smith said. “I think emotionally- just, you know, he grew up a Ute fan and I think it’s very rare now-a-days to see guys stick it out for five years, or four years at one place. It’s home for him. He had a lot of opportunities last year and obviously tested the waters. There was never a doubt, if he was coming back to school, he was coming back to be a Ute. He cares about it deeply. He loves this place and obviously, he’s a legendary player here.”

Bajema has not been with the Utes as long- just one season after transferring from Washington, but still an impactful move for Utah that Smith is grateful for.

“A little bit different story,” Smith said. “Three schools in three years. Graduated last year at Washington and came here as a grad transfer, but it’s still the end of a chapter in your life. Now you go out into the real world so-to-speak in a lot of respects. Those two guys have done a great job for us throughout the year.”

Utah’s Close Locker Room Motivated To Not Let Seniors Down

Smith indicated a few other players would be recognized as well who will have earned their degree but still have a year of eligibility left.

There are also plenty of guys on the Utes’ roster that aren’t quite there in their careers yet, but Smith anticipates because of the closeness of their locker room everyone will be determined to not let the seniors down on their special weekend.

“The guys that aren’t going through it can see things in maybe a little different light,” Smith said. “If you have a close locker room like we do, it means a little bit more to those guys too. They want it super bad for their teammates because one day it will be them.”

The Runnin’ Utes Are Just Trying To Control What They Can Control

In addition to not wanting to let the seniors down, Utah also doesn’t want to sit at home this March which also means a need to win out or close to. As Smith pointed out, the Utes sit in a position they really haven’t ever been in since he took over.

“We have a lot of guys who are not used to winning at the college level,” Smith said. “It’s hard. It’s really, really hard and you have to be able to overcome all of that from a physical standpoint, a mental standpoint- everyone is telling you how good you are. At the end of the day, the last 11 games, we haven’t been nearly as good.”

Smith went on to discuss how Utah isn’t totally out of the postseason discussion, but they have to start doing a better job of controlling what they can control right now.

“The world isn’t caving in, but we have got to be able to fine-tune and understand how we were in that conversation for a lot of the year and get back to that style of basketball,” Smith said. “Certainly, the reality of it is, Rollie hasn’t played for quite some time, and we miss him. That’s just the facts. Nobody wants to talk about it, but it’s the reality. We have to figure that out from a leadership standpoint, from a toughness standpoint, from a connectivity standpoint and we have the guys in the locker room to do it, but we have to do it. We have to make a conscientious decision to do it. How are they handling it? If you asked me on Saturday- not very well. All we can control is our attitude, our effort, our toughness, our execution and then we will see where the chips fall.”

Speaking Of Rollie Worster…

Smith did give a bit of an update on Worster’s status moving forward into the last two weeks of the regular season and the Pac-12 Tournament. While the situation has taken longer than anyone inside the building had ultimately anticipated, there is still hope.

However, Smith did note it’s important to remember that Worster hasn’t been doing much of anything basketball-wise for a while, and it might take him some time to get back to doing all the things he does best out on the court.

“Oh, we’ve had a lot of conversations,” Smith said with a laugh. “Believe me. I know I’ve been a little bit of a broken record, but I can only tell you what I know. He’s going through right now- I’d say his last thing we are trying to get done to see if he can make it back. He’s supposed to go in to the doctor later this week and we’ll see.”

Michelle Bodkin is the Utah Utes Insider for KSLsports.com and host of both the Crimson Corner Podcast (SUBSCRIBE) and The Saturday Show (Saturday from 10 a.m.–12 p.m.) on The KSL Sports Zone. Follow her on XInstagram, and Threads: @BodkinKSLsports

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Utah Men’s Basketball Looking Forward To A Special Weekend