He's quiet and raw, but freshman Keba Keita making forceful impact on Runnin' Utes

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah freshman center Keba Keita got switched onto Jacksonville State's point guard JJ Platt in the post, and head coach Craig Smith yelled out his assignment.

Keita hadn't studied up on the guards prior to the game (by design) and was more focused on the bigs in the team's game plan. Smith knew this and hoped for the best for his raw freshman from Wasatch Academy via Bamako, Mali. Keita didn't flinch and stuck to his assignment on Platt.

Seconds later, the basketball was fed into the post and Keita knocked it away in what was expected to be an out-of-bounds play on the baseline. But seemingly out of nowhere, Keita jolted for the ball in the last second, grabbed it mid air and quickly threw it off the leg of one of Jacksonville State players. Utah ball.

While a common play often seen in the sport, it was one of many athletic moves Keita has gradually showcased in his limited time with the program. It was one of those plays that left everyone in attendance, including the coaching staff, amazed at his versatility and range.

Keita wasn't finished that night and had a pair of highlight-reel worthy dunks, including one where he had a block on one end of the court and then rushed down for the transition alley-oop dunk on the other off a pass from Lazar Stefanovic. He finished with 6 points, four rebounds and two blocks in a 99-58 win, but it was the start of a promising career at Utah.

The 6-foot-8, 230-pound center is quiet and reserved off the court, but on the court he's a budding star that brings a ferocity and physicality to the game that requires instant attention. He's not the plodding type that simply takes up space in the post, but one that Smith describes as have a "high motor" and "twitchy."

"Like, the NFL always talks about guys in the NFL draft, they're twitchy; Keba's twitchy, a twitchy guy," Smith said. "His hands are so fast and he can cover ground so quick."

Keita averages only 12.2 minutes per game but has seen his minutes increase — more now that Gavin Baxter medically retired from the game last week — since he's been able to showcase his raw talent in the limited reps he's been given. The freshman makes mistakes at times, but he's been a difference maker for a Utah team working to get back to the NCAA Tournament.

And Keita may be one of the team's answers to eventually get back to the Big Dance, even if it's not this season.

"It's crazy. Seems like every play he makes is a big play; it really seems like it, and everybody gets hyped whenever he makes a play," Stefanovic said after Utah's win over Jacksonville State. "It's great to have him."

"He just brings so much energy and you just get hyped any play," veteran center Branden Carlson added. "He's gonna give his everything every time — 110%. He's gonna be out there making hussle plays, whether or not he's just being physical with the opponent or going and getting loose balls. I think he gets more 50/50 balls out of anyone I've ever seen."

Keita has appeared to develop quickly in his 10 games with the Utes and appears more comfortable each game he's a part of, but Smith said those that see him on a day-to-day basis, it "doesn't surprise anybody anymore" what he's been able to accomplish.

He's still a freshman going through the development of his game and all that that entails, but he's given Smith his dream lineup of two bigs that can play on the floor together at the same time — or he can at least serve as a viable backup to Carlson when he subs out of the game.

"Keba is gonna be a factor, no question about that," Smith said, though he added that some games Keita's gotten into foul trouble, which has limited his role. "... He's made an impact every game and he's a force in there. You feel him. I mean, he impacts the game in a lot of different ways.

"He doesn't try to be something he's not; he knows exactly who he is and what he is: a high level rebounder, elite shot blocker, plays with a lot of force and tenacity, and plays super physical."

He's Utah's next rising star and one to pay attention to as he continues to develop in a system that Smith hopes will bring the Utes back to postseason play. But for now, he's continuing to learn the game as he makes highlight plays that gets the Huntsman Center crowd on its feet.

"Keba is a great asset for our team and he's going to help us win a lot of games," Carlson said.

Utah Utes center Keba Keita (13) goes to the hoop ahead of Arizona Wildcats center Oumar Ballo (11) during the game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022.
Utah Utes center Keba Keita (13) goes to the hoop ahead of Arizona Wildcats center Oumar Ballo (11) during the game at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022. (Photo: Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

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Josh is the Sports Director for KSL.com and beat writer covering University of Utah athletics — primarily football, men’s and women's basketball and gymnastics. He is also an Associated Press Top 25 voter for college football.


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