Analysis: Utes still have one scholarship to use for the 2021-22 season, but will be in no rush to use it
The makeup of the University of Utah basketball roster, not to mention what it could be come November and beyond, was significantly altered late last week.
With three scholarships still to play with for the 2021-22 season, first-year Utes head coach Craig Smith and his staff went out and got a Thursday commitment from former Utah guard and University of Minnesota transfer Both Gach, then scored 6-foot-10 Illinois State transfer Dusan Mahorcic on Friday afternoon.
Those two additions were respective breaths of fresh air for Utah fans, because as far as recruiting guys, things had been quiet in Salt Lake City, at least publicly. This, as programs all over the country kept pulling commits out of the NCAA Transfer Portal, fortifying rosters with older, experienced players, while the Utes held steady with its three open slots following the May 11 commitment of Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College wing Bostyn Holt.
In the 23 days between Holt’s commitment and Gach’s commitment, Smith fulfilled a small handful of media requests, all of which at some point veered off to recruiting, and more specifically, what he planned to do with the three remaining scholarships.
As a point of reference, having three open slots once the calendar turns to June was once generally considered a lot. That type of notion is less relevant now with the advent of the transfer portal, which has turned recruiting into a constant, every-day, fluid situation of mixing and matching current pieces with new pieces.
To that end, part of Smith’s reputation as a recruiter is steeped in the fact that he is deliberate. He is on his own clock, and he will not be rushed into anything.
“If it makes sense, we will, and if it doesn’t we won’t,” Smith told The Salt Lake Tribune last month in response to whether or not he expected to be at the NCAA maximum of 13 scholarship players next season. “All I mean by that is, we’re not going to reach. We know where we’re at, what we need, but it has to be the right fit in every way. We’re not going to reach to take a guy that’s not our level, or reach for a guy that maybe isn’t about what we stand for as a program, or doesn’t fit our style of play, and we’ve always been steadfast in that.
“We’re not always perfect, we make mistakes, too, but it has to make sense. Maybe we’ll go with 10 guys, maybe it’s 13, or anything in between. It’s not going to be a situation where we feel we absolutely have to get two, three more guys. We’ll just keep recruiting like we are, and we have so much to offer our guys coming in. We’ll see where it goes.”
Smith giving the possibility of going with 10 scholarship guys was tongue-in-cheek, because no head coach at this level is going to willingly hold firm at 10. Even 11 would have felt light, but that is no longer a concern. Utah will go into 2021-22 with at least 12 scholarship players, and the most-recent two additions fill some needs.
Gach played 1,422 minutes across 57 games during the 2019 and 2020 seasons for then-head coach Larry Krystkowiak, averaging 9.1 points in that span. Gach was not always consistent, he did not always shoot the ball well, but his best, most-engaged play on both ends makes him a clear starter at the Pac-12 level. Gach started the first 16 games last season for Minnesota, but moved to the bench at the end of January as his role and production dwindled.
Gach has shown capable of playing point guard when needed, which is a boon for a Utah program in need of more depth at that position, but he is not expected to be a full-time PG for Smith. At best, Gach challenges to start somewhere in the backcourt. At worst, he is an early call off Smith’s bench with the ability to guard all three positions.
If more backcourt help was priority 1A for Utah, more size and physicality up front was 1B, and Mahorcic fits that bill.
The Serbian-born forward averaged 9.9 points on 55% shooting to go along with 7.4 rebounds in 22 games last season at Illinois State. His game has been likened to that of a “throwback” big man, meaning he will roam the paint, is willing to mix it up underneath, and doesn’t do a ton of stepping outside, at least not yet.
Mahorcic didn’t arrive in the United States until 2015, at which time he was a high school sophomore. He spent time at two different junior colleges, and only has the aforementioned 22 games of experience at the Division I level. Mahorcic is still learning, still maturing, but what he brings to the table makes him a safe bet to play a ton, if not start.
With Mahorcic in the fold, regardless of how he is used, the possibility of him pairing with 7-foot center Branden Carlson is intriguing. Carlson has been more of a finesse guy on the offensive end, one with the ability to step out to the 3-point line, while showing flashes of elite rim-protection and rim-running in 55 career games.
Riley Battin will be in the mix as a stretch-four, while Lahat Thioune remains very much a mystery as a fourth-year redshirt sophomore next season.
This is where it is important to note again that Smith has one scholarship left to use, and that Utah remains in the mix with Boston College graduate transfer Steffon Mitchell, a 6-foot-8, defensive-minded forward with 108 games of experience under his belt for the ACC program.
Mitchell is currently going through the NBA Draft process, so if Utah is intent on waiting him out, it could be a while. The deadline to withdraw from the draft and retain collegiate eligibility is July 7.