Mike Saunders Jr. Has Belief In Self, Utes

Jun 26, 2022, 10:02 AM | Updated: Jul 8, 2022, 10:07 am
Runnin' Ute junior point guard, Mike Saunders Jr. during summer workouts. (Photo courtesy of Utah Athletics.)
(Photo courtesy of Utah Athletics.)

SALT LAKE CITY- Mike Saunders Jr. transferred to Utah because he has a strong belief in himself that he can be “the guy” and not just “a guy” on a team. Saunders also believes in Utah’s ability to improve in year two of head coach Craig Smith’s reign and is ready to do his part to make that happen.

Finding A Bigger Role

Saunders spent the first two years of his collegiate career playing for Cincinnati in reserve. While Saunders did well in those moments, he felt like his role with the Bearcats had no place to grow, so he entered the transfer portal in hopes of finding a team where he could play a bigger part. That’s when Smith hit him up and Saunders knew he found his landing spot.

“The main thing for me was just wanting to have a bigger role,” Saunders said. “I wanted to feel like a team needed me to be out there in the last minutes of games. I can be that guy for a team. I have 100% belief in my game and ability and I just needed a coach to see that vision and believe in me. I just felt like I wasn’t getting the opportunity at Cincinnati.”

Even before either Smith or Saunders became Utes they had already built a bit of a rapport. That relationship was a big factor in Saunders’ decision to come to Utah along with familiarity with the state from playing at the Wasatch Academy.

“Definitely coach Smith,” Saunders said. “I believe in him 100% as a coach. I’ve actually known coach Smith since he was at Utah State and I went to prep school out here for two years at Wasatch Academy. I had a relationship with him then. When I was in the portal he was one of the first coaches to contact me. He told me how much he believed in me and envisioning me being the point guard of the program. I was already comfortable with him and then I was at Wasatch for two years so Utah was a no-brainer for me honestly. It just fit. I feel like I played my best basketball out here and I was excited to be back. I know Utah has a history of really good players coming out of here so hopefully I can be the next one.”

Coach Smith’s Vision

Year one for Smith wasn’t terribly smooth from an on-the-court perspective, but also not unexpected. Utah basketball was in desperate need of refreshing and often that means starting over. Year two looks to be much more positive for the Utes due to Smith having time to really source out the types of players he wants to bring in and run his system. Saunders is optimistic about Smith’s vision and what the 2023 Runnin’ Utes can accomplish.

“He thinks we are going to be able to take that next step,” Saunders said. “He’s brought in guys like me and Ben Carlson, Keba and Wil Exacte. He’s brought in the guys he feels like will help the program take the next step with the guys who were here last year. We are all in. We are trying to win the Pac of course and get to the Big Dance. He really believes in us 100% that we can do that.”

“He thinks after one year he got a feel of the Pac-12 and a feel of what this team needs,” Saunders continued. “He feels like he’s got all of the pieces to make that big jump. People don’t have the biggest expectations and that is fine because they don’t know what we have yet. We 100% have belief in ourselves that we can do something special this year. We are excited.”

Putting In The Work

Right now the Runnin’ Utes are working hard to get the program back on track starting with summer workouts. So far the word has come back that the work has been hard, but positive progress is being made that will show up once the season kicks off.

“This is our second week of working out and I’ve already got a pretty good impression of the team,” Saunders said. “A lot of guys are shooters for sure. A lot of guys want to be in the gym. Everyone is hard workers, everyone wants to be good. That’s good ingredients for a good team and to do something special for this year. Workouts have been going really well. They have been hard, not going to lie, but they have been good.”

Another area the guys are working hard at according to Saunders is team chemistry. With not a lot of returning talent for the Utes, it’s up to everyone on the team to get to know each other quickly and build that bond both on and off of the court.

“After we are done working out we try to go and hoop- like play and run as a team,” Saunders said. “We try to do events together as a team to try and get some type of chemistry going. I feel like over time it’s going to come naturally, but everybody is communicating. There isn’t like small little groups or anything like that. I think all of the extra stuff off the court will make us a stronger team on the court.”

Breakout Season Candidate

Asked who he thought on the team would have a breakout year, Saunders said he felt like junior guard Gabe Madsen has all of the tools to be dangerous in 2023.

“Gabe is elite,” Saunders said. “Gabe is an elite shooter/scorer, but he’s also put on some strength so he’s got some athleticism too. Gabe is going to be very, very scary this year.”


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