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Picked to finished 10th in Pac-12, Runnin' Utes looking to defy odds

Head coach Craig Smith walks at midcourt as the University of Utah’s men’s basketball team opens camp with practice inside the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021.

Head coach Craig Smith walks at midcourt as the University of Utah’s men’s basketball team opens camp with practice inside the Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Basketball Facility in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021. (Scott G Winterton, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — The odds are stacked against Utah's men's basketball program.

Coming off the university's first losing season since 2012-13 and a change in the coaching staff, there's little to support the Runnin' Utes suddenly making a run for a Pac-12 title, especially in a loaded conference returning several teams that went deep in the most recent NCAA Tournament.

On Wednesday, as part of the Pac-12 media day ahead of the 2021-22 season, the Utes were picked to finish 10th in the conference in the preseason media poll. It's the lowest ranking for the Utes since they were picked to finish 12th for the second-straight season in 2012 after joining the conference a season prior.

And while a lower ranking in the preseason poll was expected with a new coaching staff and roster turnover, it's not uncharted waters for the Utes in the Pac-12. Only three times in the history of the Pac-12 has Utah been ranked higher than eighth, though Utah's seventh-place ranking in 2017 wasn't much higher. Still, Utah has met or exceeded expectations each season.

The odds will be against Craig Smith and his new program, but those within the program believe they have the makings to once again exceed expectations as they prove it to the conference.

"Yes, we're not going to be the favorite ones; we're going to be the underdogs, but we want it that way because then they're not going to see it coming," guard David Jenkins Jr. said earlier this year. "They probably have us listed at the bottom or whatever it is, but that just gives us more motivation to go out even harder, to practice each and every day and get better overall.

"At the end of the day, we want to be at the top of the pack and we want to make it to the tournament, so that's what we're going to strive for each and every day here. And this culture that we're in, I feel like that's something we're going to get done."

And while Jenkins' statement isn't all that different from what is expected from a player in a program hoping to see a turnaround, there's a proven pattern that Smith gets more out of his players than most. It's a pattern most recently seen at Utah State where Smith took a down program and rebuilt it overnight into an NCAA Tournament team in all three seasons of his coaching tenure there.

"Well, every year our expectation is to get to the NCAA Tournament and win when we get there; and that's not a line just to say the line, that's our expectations," Smith said in September. "Now, is that going to be tough to do? Of course it is. It's going to be very, very difficult to do."

That difficulty will start with preseason favorite UCLA, which was picked as the near-unanimous No. 1 among voters. The Bruins received 32 of the 34 total votes for first-place standing following a Final Four finish in the NCAA Tournament last season.

Oregon, which is a two-time defending regular-season champion, picked up two first-place votes and finished behind the Bruins at No. 2. USC rounded out the top three, with Arizona and Oregon State in a tie for fourth place. The rest of the conference was Colorado at sixth, followed by Arizona State, Washington State, Stanford, Utah, Washington and California.

No Utah players were named to the preseason All-Pac-12 team. UCLA featured three players on the first team — Tyger Campbell, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Johnny Juzang — which was the most for all teams.

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