by Daniel Olsen
With another rough year for Utah Utes men’s basketball, this likely won’t be our first or last attempt to search the nation for great coaching candidates. However, it’s possible that the University of Utah doesn’t need to look any further than their own backyard. Let’s take a look at three reasons why current USU basketball coach Craig Smith would be the perfect candidate at the University of Utah.
1. Their current coach isn’t winning:
A quick look at the PAC-12 standings will tell you that it’s not working out for a traditional powerhouse in the Utes and hasn’t for some time. They are currently 3-6 in conference play and 6-7 overall. That’s good enough for eighth overall in the conference. Maybe the bottom half of the Big 10 or ACC can make it to the NCAA on the bubble or maybe the NIT. However, the PAC-12 is on the wrong side of the East Coast bias that exists in college hoops.
The last time the Utes made the tournament under Coach Krystowiak was in 2016. They got a first-round victory over Fresno State before losing to Gonzaga in the second round. Delon Wright helped lead the Utes to the Sweet 16 the year prior. Coach Krystowiak had every reason to win in those years as he had NBA talent.
2017 is where it headed south. Despite having a future NBA player in Kyle Kuzma, the Utes were an early exit in the NIT. That little dance wasn’t nearly as impressive as the Big Dance in years prior. In 2018 they went all the way up to runner-up (again in the NIT). They haven’t been back to any sort of tournament since then and it doesn’t look like they will be anytime soon.
2. Coach Smith gets the most out of his players
Every year it seems like the Utes have a young promising team. That promise just hasn’t panned out as expected. Krystowiak is also 4-7 in his career against the rival BYU Cougars. While Craig Smith is 0-2 against BYU, he coaches for a smaller school and has not had the opportunity to coach them at home in front of a large crowd. He had COVID-19 this year around the time of the game so the assistant coaches took his place in a three point loss.
Smith has been energetic at USU and gets his players to play some of the most stingiest defense in the nation. They also dive for loose balls and box out for rebounds. The Aggies rank among the top 15 in the nation currently with 61.6 points allowed per game. While they have the occasional hiccup, these guys care about winning and do it at a high level.
3. Smith has a track record of getting to the NCAA Tournament
A quick look at Smith’s time in Logan will tell you all you need to know. While they were a bubble team most of those years, it didn’t matter because they won the conference tournament both years. As a coach, it’s important to go for that auto-bid because your destiny is 100 percent within your control. In other big leagues, coaches sometimes settle for losses in their conference tournaments because they know it’s still possible for them to get to the Sweet 16. Coach Smith has a winning attitude and would do whatever it takes to help the Utes get to the next level.
While Krystowiak had success at first, it was largely due to having guys who were winners on his team. He doesn’t seem to have the will to win anymore at this level. He has the basketball mind but maybe that would fare better as an assistant in the pros where he had a successful 12-year career.
While it would be great for the state to have three great coaches, the Aggies have proven they can find talented candidates. If I’m the Utes I make the call. However, if I’m Smith I don’t know if this would be my top preferred destination. Smith is a small-town Midwest guy. He grew up in Minnesota and coached in South Dakota. I think he would love a shot at coaching the Minnesota Gophers or Iowa Hawkeyes in the Big 10. Whenever those coaching slots become available, you can bet there would be mutual interest as long as Smith keeps having success in Logan.
I will continue to look for other possible candidates and analyze whether they’d be a good fit for the Utes. As of now, it’s the hottest seat in the state as other coaches seem to be doing alright where they’re at. The Runnin’ Utes have a tradition of basketball success. It’s time to bring that back. While Aggie fans would be furious, Smith absolutely would be the right man for the job if he’s interested.