A History Of Utah HC Craig Smith’s First Seasons With Programs

Jan 28, 2022, 5:57 PM
Craig Smith - Utah Utes vs. USC...
Craig Smith head coach of the Utah Utes reacts to an officials call the USC Trojans during the second half of their game January 22, 2022 at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.(Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)
(Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY – Over halfway through his first season as the head coach of Utah basketball, Craig Smith is seeing some serious struggles currently with a nine-game losing streak.

Utah basketball was expected to have a down year as the program transitions to a new era with Craig Smith. But, some didn’t expect a losing streak as long as the one the program went through when they first transitioned to the Pac-12.

A big reason why Smith was hired at Utah was his success right off the bat with any program he takes over. This season is a little different with the transfer portal taking over college sports, along with injury issues. I decided to take a deep dive through Craig Smith’s two previous stops (in Division I) as head coach and compare the first seasons with those programs to this season with the Runnin’ Utes.

I will look at the records, the numbers, injuries and how much of a roster turnover Smith had from the year before his arrival.

Smith was also the head coach at Mayville State from 2004-07.

South Dakota, 2014-18

Smith took over South Dakota’s program in 2014 after spending two years as an assistant for Nebraska. The Coyotes had 10 wins in the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons before finishing with a 12-18 record in 2013-14. That’s when coach Smith took over the program.

Smith gave South Dakota a five-win improvement in his first season, finishing with a 17-16 overall record and a 9-7 mark in the Summit League. Going into his first season with the Coyotes, Smith had eight players back that were on the team the previous season, including leading scorer Brandon Bos, assist leader Trey Norris and leading rebounder Tyler Flack, but he suffered an injury and missed Smith’s first season.

Smith brought in eight players as well, including three from junior college, three from other Division I programs and two freshmen. Seven players from the previous season didn’t return to play for Smith, two graduated and five transferred.

Smith didn’t have a lot of issues with injuries that season as only a handful of players missed few games to either DNP or injuries.

Utah State, 2018-21

After back-to-back 20-win seasons, Smith took the Utah State job in 2018. During the 2017-18 season, Utah State finished with a 17-17 overall record and 8-10 in the Mountain West. In Craig Smith’s first season in Logan, the Aggies went 28-7 overall and 15-3 in conference play, including a Mountain West tournament championship.

Smith was able to get some talented players to stay in Logan when he took over the program. He had leading scorer and assist leader Sam Merrill. Quinn Taylor had the highest field goal percentage in the previous season. Brock Miller was the most effective three-point shooter and Dwayne Brown Jr. was the third leading scorer and the top returning rebounder.

Smith had nine players return from the previous Utah State team to play for him, which included Merrill, Taylor, Brown Jr., Miller, Abel Porter, Justin Bean, Diogo Brito, Crew Ainge and Klay Stall. He also signed Neemias Queta, while keeping commitments from Tauriawn Knight, Ben Fakira, Alek Johnson and signing JUCO transfer Roche Grootfaam.

Seven players from Tim Duryea’s roster didn’t stick around to play for Craig Smith and just one was graduating. Koby McEwen was the biggest hit that left the program as he was the second-leading scorer and the leading rebounder.

In Smith’s first season at Utah State, his standout players including, Merrill, Queta, Taylor, Brito, Miller and Brown Jr. didn’t miss a game. Porter missed one game. Bean played in 29, missing six contests.

Why Is Smith Struggling With Utah?

Two big reasons why Smith is off to a rocky start at Utah is the amount of injuries the team has gone through and the lack of depth in the paint. Utah has played 21 games to this point (when this story was published). Just four players have played in all 21 games, including David Jenkins Jr., Lazar Stefanovic, Rollie Worster and Riley Battin. Branden Carlson has missed seven games, Both Gach missed the season opener, Marco Anthony was out for three games, Dusan Mahorcic missed eight games, Lahat Thioune didn’t play in two games and Gabe Madsen was out for six games.

When Smith took the job, Utah had a flood of players enter the portal and play elsewhere. That included the Runnin’ Utes’ leading scorer, rebounder and assist man in the final season under Larry Krystkowiak.

No one can predict injuries but coach Smith has already put his stamp on the program in seeing guys flourish like Carlson, Madsen, Jaxon Brenchley and Eli Ballstaedt.

Fans will need to be patient though. If you think Smith isn’t the guy, give him more time. He has the chops to bring this program back to being competitive.

Trevor Allen is a Utah Utes Insider for KSLSports.com, Co-Host of Faith, Family and Football podcast with Clark Phillips III and host of the Crimson Corner podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @TrevorASports.

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