Utah hopes to end NCAA Tournament drought with Branden Carlson leading experienced roster

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Branden Carlson's decision to withdraw his name from the 2023 NBA draft meant Utah was getting back a player who could help lead the Utes to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in eight years.

It also was a key reason why he wanted to return.

"I didn’t come back to not make the tournament this year,” Carlson said. “It’s definitely what we’re trying to do.”

There was another reason that drove his decision. Carlson’s wife, Maddy, had enrolled in law school at the university.

Utah is positioned to challenge for a return to the Big Dance entering coach Craig Smith’s third season. The Utes started strong a year ago behind a potent one-two scoring punch from the 7-foot Carlson and sharpshooting guard Gabe Madsen. They opened Pac-12 play with five straight wins and were still on the NCAA Tournament bubble in early February.

Then a late-season injury to Madsen unraveled a promising season. The Utes finished with six straight losses, going 17-15 overall and 10-10 in the Pac-12.

Prolonged offensive droughts plagued Utah during that slide, and the Utes took steps to address those issues in the offseason. They added Cole Bajema from Washington and Deivon Smith from Georgia Tech in the backcourt in hopes of easing some of the scoring load that largely fell on Carlson and Madsen.

Utah is also counting on getting a boost from experience. The Utes return four starters and several bench players who saw extensive minutes last season.

“We just look a lot different this year in every way, shape and form than we did the last two years, and I think that’s a real positive,” Craig Smith said.

Success for Utah will likely hinge on Carlson’s production on both ends of the court. The senior led the Utes in points (16.4), rebounds (7.5) and blocks (2.0) a year ago.

“To lead this team is probably my biggest role this year,” Carlson said. “Fifth-year guy. Been at Utah the whole time. I know what Coach Smith expects. I know how the fans feel about this program and where this program needs to go.”

HEALTHY AGAIN

Major injuries sidelined Madsen for several games during each of his past two seasons. Since joining the Utes as a transfer from Cincinnati in 2021, Madsen has played in 50 games. A collapsed lung caused him to miss six games as a sophomore. Then as a junior, he sat out for seven games with a lower leg injury.

The 6-6 guard put extra focus on conditioning heading into his senior season.

“I’ve been setting aside a lot of time these days to work on mobility before I start shooting,” Madsen said. “I really feel myself getting healthier in that way. Just making it a priority. Hopefully, the third year is a charm and no injuries this year.”

When he’s healthy, Madsen has been Utah’s most dangerous outside shooter. He averaged 11.6 points per game last season while making a team-high 62 3-pointers.

WAITING GAME

The Utes are seeking an NCAA waiver for Deivon Smith to play this season. Smith is a two-time transfer, having played at Mississippi State for a year before spending two seasons with Georgia Tech. He averaged 7.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists as a junior with the Yellow Jackets to go with a 2.8 assist-to-turnover ratio.

“It’s hard on everybody, but it’s especially hard on him,” Craig Smith said. “You just don’t know. Am I going to be able to play? Am I not? But he’s handled it well. He’s handled it as a professional.”

BLOCK PARTY

Driving to the basket could turn into a perilous exercise for Utah opponents.

Carlson led the Pac-12 with 63 blocked shots last season. Colorado transfer Lawson Lovering had a team-high 33 blocks for the Buffaloes a year ago. Keba Keita tallied 22 blocks as a freshman while playing only 10.5 minutes per game.

SCHEDULE

Utah’s schedule contains a few early tests and potential resume builders. The Utes are playing in the Charleston Classic in mid-November that includes Houston, St. John’s, LSU, Wake Forest, Dayton, North Texas and Towson. Games against BYU, Saint Mary’s and defending WAC champion Utah Valley also highlight the nonconference slate.

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AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-basketball