Despite difficult offseason, Runnin' Utes coach Craig Smith 'super excited' by rebuild


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SALT LAKE CITY β€” What offseason?

In a matter of a few weeks, Utah men's basketball went from a promising season, in which the team was on pace to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016, to a complete roster rebuild, which included multiple players and coaches.

Days before a semifinal exit in the NIT β€” a 100-90 loss to Indiana State β€” Utah starting guard Rollie Worster (who was injured for most of Pac-12 play) entered his name into the transfer portal, beginning what turned out to be a mass exodus from the program.

Wilguens Jr. Exacte (Bowling Green) and Luka Tarlac (Cal Poly) joined Worster β€” who later committed to Nebraska β€” in the portal midway through April, followed shortly by triple-double machine Deivon Smith (St. John's).

Promising big Keba Keita rounded out the exodus at the beginning of May and joined rival BYU, following former Utah assistant Chris Burgess to Provo. Fellow assistants Tramel Barnes, DeMarlo Slocum, and director of operations Curran Walsh also found new homes.

It was suddenly a lot to replace in a little amount of time, and the optics surrounding the program didn't look good from an outsiders' perspective.

"I could write a book about the last six to eight weeks," head coach Craig Smith told KSL.com in a wide-ranging interview. "There was a stretch there where every day was not just one chapter, there were two or three chapters within a day. But you know what? You grow from that, and you learn from that, and that's just the truth.

"Have there been some incredibly hard days. Of course, there are some really tough days, and that's OK," he added. "And so you have to embrace that and keep pushing forward, and hopefully motivate and inspire everybody around you the best that you can. It's been challenging but exciting at the same time, and so super excited where this program is going."

Amid the hard days came good days, too, Smith admitted.

He brought on two new assistant coaches β€” Loren "Lo" Leath and Josh Eilert β€” and compiled a roster of high-end talent that he believes is closer to the style of play he's wanted to put together in his tenure at Utah. There's still two more scholarship positions to fill β€” a big and a point guard, he hopes β€” but he's optimistic his team can take another step forward.

"We have to get these guys and not just settle; we're not just gonna go fill it to fill it," Smith said. "I've always been steadfast with that. It's gotta be guys that we think can accelerate our program, accentuate our program and make our team better."

It's all come together despite many outside the program (and maybe at times within the program) worried that Utah men's basketball was ready to fold β€” call it a day and accept the bad cards dealt. But Smith said his staff continued to show pride and a fight to rebuild a competitive roster.

It's too early to know if any of it worked and if Utah can take a step forward in a highly-competitive Big 12, but Smith likes his odds after everything that's happened.

"At the end of the day, it's been a great offseason," Smith said. "I'm really excited about where we're at, where we're going, and excited about our recruiting and our new guys. But, obviously, there's been a lot of change and that's not always β€” change can be hard, but it also can be a real blessing, and so I'm excited with the direction.

"I'm really proud of our staff. When you lose a couple of assistants, other guys have got to pick some things up, and I'm really proud of the job they we're able to do on the recruiting front."

Kansas guard Elmarko Jackson (13) tries to knock the ball away from Baylor forward Caleb Lohner (33) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lawrence, Kan., Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024.
Kansas guard Elmarko Jackson (13) tries to knock the ball away from Baylor forward Caleb Lohner (33) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Lawrence, Kan., Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024. (Photo: Reed Hoffmann, Associated Press)

The remaining staff helped bring on seven players from the transfer portal, including Mason Madsen (Boston College), Miro Little (Baylor), Keanu Dawes (Rice), Zach Keller (Wake Forest), Mike Sharavjamts (San Francisco), Ezra Ausar (East Carolina) and the intriguing addition of Caleb Lohner (Baylor).

Lohner, the one-time Utah signee who asked out of his National Letter of Intent to transfer to BYU before a later jump to Baylor, joins as a walk-on player who earned a scholarship with the football team as he tries his hand as a tight end while attempting to play on the basketball team, too.

Although unconventional, Lohner's addition to the team is one Smith is intrigued by given his experience as a basketball player amid his newfound role on Kyle Whittingham's squad.

"I think there's definitely an aspect there, and it's a little bit uncharted territory," Smith said. "It's certainly been done in the past on a few occasions, but not necessarily with me, but I'm excited about it. I think Caleb is β€” I mean, from the time I saw him at Wasatch (Academy), he's a heck of a player. And, of course, I've coached against him multiple times, so I think there's a real avenue there, it's just a matter of exactly how it looks."

Overall, it's a roster that Smith believes could provide more balanced scoring. Instead of the focus being solely on one person, there's an opportunity to spread the ball around more than in year's past. And the potential on defense, he believes, will be improved, too.

"I think there's gonna be more guys that can hurt you and get 15-20 on any given night," he said. "So, I really like our talent level.

"We brought in a lot of versatility, a lot of guys that, I think, we can kind of bring positional versatility that we can move up and down the lineup, that bring a good combination of size and athleticism and skill," Smith added. "All these guys are very, very skilled and know how to play the game. And so when you look at how we built the team, I think they complement each other."

The team opened up summer workouts earlier this week, and there will be a lot of "teaching our new coaches our new terminology just like our new players," amid the continued push to fill the last two spots on the roster, while also trying to prepare for a new conference β€” one that is often considered the best in college basketball.

"There's a lot going on, there's a lot of moving parts, but that's β€” I view that as an exciting thing, and you've got to be able to embrace that, find solutions. We're definitely going to learn from one another."

None of it has been easy, and none of it will get any easier. But Smith believes there's opportunity in the pressure that comes with the job.

"There's always pressure, and do I feel that? Of course at times you feel different things. You do; it's human nature. But I've always tried to keep β€” on a personal level β€” I try to keep real perspective," Smith said. "I think I have great balance in my life.

"I've always believed this: Pressure is a privilege; it's a real thing. ... I really believe in that," he added. "Pressure is a privilege, and you want to be at a place where it matters. Like, I want to be the head coach at a university of a men's basketball program where it truly matters. And outside always has their perspective β€” I get it β€” and it can be interesting, but it's part of the territory. I've been very, very fortunate. I'm very blessed to be able to do what I love to do. There's some incredible highs and some incredible days that you have in the relationships that you make are off the charts."

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Josh is the Sports Director for KSL.com and beat writer covering University of Utah athletics β€” primarily football, men’s and women's basketball and gymnastics. He is also an Associated Press Top 25 voter for college football.

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