Rollie Worster, Utah Utes

Ahead of their move to the Big 12, the Utah Utes look to make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.

As is tradition, CBB Review is again ranking the top 100 teams heading into the new college basketball season. Each day, we will reveal the next team until we reach the team slotted at number one. Follow along with #CBBRank on all our social media channels.

While the Pac-12 as a whole hasn’t been superb over the past decade, the Utah Utes haven’t contributed much. They haven’t won 20 games since 2017-2018, and have only made the second weekend once since joining the Pac-12. With that being said, they did take a big step forward in Craig Smith’s second year, going from 11-20 to 17-15.

Utah had a very interesting season, losing to Sam Houston State in one of their first games of the season, but beat Arizona by 15 just four games later. They lost their last six games of the season, but there is still positivity heading into next season.

While the non-conference schedule isn’t set, we do know they’ll be participating in the Shriners Children’s Charleston Classic. On paper, they’re toward the middle of the pack when looking at the teams, but this could be a great opportunity to prove that they’re more than that.

First things first, they bring back four of their top six scorers, including their top scorer and rebounder Brandon Carlson.  They went into the portal and brought in two fellow Pac-12 players to round out the rotation. Utah has a solid eight, but they’ll need most of their guys to step up if they want to be competing for a Pac-12 championship in late February. The Utah Utes have a pretty solid floor, but the question is how high their ceiling is.

Click here to learn more about our preseason top 100 teams heading into the 2023-24 college basketball season.

Head Coach: Craig Smith (10th season, 3rd at Utah)

2022-23 record: 17-15 (10-10)

2023 postseason finish: No postseason

Notable departures: Lazar Stefanovic (Transferred to UCLA), Marco Anthony (Graduated), Mike Saunders (Transferred to McNeese)

Notable non-conference games: Utah Valley (December 16th), Shriners Children’s Charleston Classic (Saint John’s, North Texas, Dayton, LSU, Houston, Towson, Wake Forest).

Projected Rotation:

PG: Rollie Worster (6-4, 204, Sr.)

2022-2023 stats: 8.7 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 5.0 APG, 81.1 FT%

SG: Gabe Madsen (6-6, 203, Sr.)

2022-23 stats: 11.6 PPG, 2.7 RPG, 1.7 APG, 36.9 3P%

SF: Cole Bajema (6-7, 184, Gr.-Sr.)

2022-23 stats: 8.8 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 0.5 APG, 85.1 FT% (Washington)

PF: Ben Carlson (6-9, 228, Sr.)

2022-23 stats: 4.5 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 0.4 APG,

C: Branden Carlson (7-0, 223, Gr.-Sr.)

2022-23 stats: 16.3 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 1.5 APG, 2.0 BPG, 49.5 FG%

6: Lawson Lovering (7-1, 244, Jr.)

2022-2023 stats: 4.9 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 0.9 APG, 1.0 BPG, 55.4 FG% (Colorado)

7: Deivon Smith (6-1, 165, Sr.)

2022-2023 stats: 8.0 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 3.7 APG, 39.9 FG% (Georgia Tech)

8: Wilguens Jr. Exacte (6-6, 233, So.)

2022-23 stats: 3.6 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 0.7 APG, 33.9 3P%

9: Keba Keita (6-8, 235, So.)

2022-23 stats: 3.0 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 0.1 APG, 60.9 FG%

10: Hunter Erickson (6-3, 194, Sr.)

2022-23 stats: 12.1 PPG, 5.4 APG, 3.9 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 42.1 3P% (JUCO)

Utah Utes MVP: Branden Carlson

As mentioned earlier, Carlson is the clear MVP. He’s a great scorer and rebounder and has taken a major leap in each season of his college career. He was named to the All-Pac-12 team the past two years, and there’s no reason he can’t add a third honor to his name.

What really stands out is his adaptation of his game. In his first two seasons, he shot under one three per game. Last season, he averaged four per game. In their massive upset win against Arizona, he shot 5-9 from deep. If he can stretch the floor and start drilling threes even more consistently at 7 feet tall, it’ll be a nightmare to guard him. His large frame also helps on the defensive end, where he averaged 2.0 blocks per game last season.

This team has a lot of question marks in general, but one thing Utah Utes fans can count on is Carlson’s production this year. If he can make his teammates better and provide opportunities on both ends of the court, that could be the difference maker for this team.

Utah Utes Make-or-Break Player: Gabe Madsen

Madsen is another player who took a big jump last year in the scoring department, going from 1.5 PPG his freshman year to 6.7 PPG sophomore year to 11.6 PPG his junior year. With Stefanovic and Anthony both leaving and Utah not necessarily bringing any scorers in the portal, they’ll need Madsen to take another leap. He doesn’t need to improve by 5 PPG like he did the past two seasons, but if he can get it up to 14 then he’s doing his job.

The question is whether he can be a more efficient scorer or not. Sure, he jumped up in scoring last year, but he only shot 35.7% from the field, which is not what you want to see from one of your top scorers. In a six-game stretch in the middle of conference play, Madsen shot 12/54, or 22% from the field. That is unacceptable, and at that point, it’s hurting the team more than it’s helping. Asking for him to jump to 40% from the field is a big ask, but he can’t keep being a low-efficiency scorer, especially since he doesn’t necessarily make up for it on the defensive end.

If he can though, then the one-two combo of him and Carlson could be one of the most dangerous in the Pac-12. He scored 26 points and knocked down 7 threes against TCU last season, and if we can see more games like that then the Utes ceiling raises even more.

Key analytic: Opponent Shooting %

If you’re going to beat the Utah Utes, you’re going to have to get lucky. Utah held their opponent to 39.7% from the field, the 11th best in the country. A big reason for that was Carlson in the post, but their general size causes issues for the opponent overall. This year, it won’t be any different, as they’ll have two seven-footers in the rotation, and a very tall lineup overall. The thing they have to work on is preventing second-chance points. Sure, a low shooting percentage is great, but if the other team keeps getting chances, they’re eventually going to score.

That was the case last year, as Utah ranked 226 in opponent offensive rebounds per game with 8.7. If they can lower that and limit second opportunities that can add 2-3 wins to their total. The addition of Bajema (6-7) and Lovering (7-1) is really going to benefit them, and knowing Coach Smith, something they will prioritize in the off-season.

Utah Utes 2023-24 projections

Projected conference finish: 10th in the Pac-12

Projected postseason ceiling: NCAA Tournament – Round of 64

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