As the Pac-12 Conference nears the midpoint of the league schedule, a frontrunner for the Coach of the Year award has emerged.
That would be Utah’s Craig Smith.
With apologies to the Pac-12’s two top-10 coaches, Tommy Lloyd at No. 6 Arizona and Mick Cronin at No. 8 UCLA, no program has exceeded expectations like the Utes. Picked 10th in the Pac-12 preseason media poll, Utah hit the halfway point of its conference schedule in sole possession of second place after sweeping the Washington teams at home.
It is no secret how the Utes (14-7, 7-3) have gotten the job done in their second season under Smith. Utah has emerged as one of the top defensive teams in the league, beginning the week ranked first in the Pac-12 in defensive field goal percentage (.374), first in defensive 3-point percentage (.280), and second in scoring defense (62.3).
Utah will try and continue the momentum during a two-game trip through Oregon that begins on Thursday at Oregon State (9 p.m. MT, Pac-12 Network).
“It was probably (our) most complete weekend. We just really took care of business at home, which good teams have to do at home,” Smith said following Saturday’s win against Washington. “On both sides of the ball, we played at a high level. That’s what great teams do.
“Our guys aren’t perfect. But we have great character off the floor. And we have great basketball character. It’s a really good group that’s connected. We have a great coaching staff and guys that like to compete and get better.”
The Utes continue to get solid play from senior forward Branden Carlson, who on Monday was named the Pac-12 men’s basketball Player of the Week. Carlson went a combined 21-for-29 during the home wins against Washington State and Washington, averaging 26.5 points, eight rebounds, 2.5 blocks and 2.0 steals. Carlson went 11-for-12 with 28 points and eight rebounds during Thursday’s win against WSU.
After scoring 25 points on Saturday against UW, Carlson became the first Utes player to record consecutive 25-point games since Andrew Bogut during the 2004-05 season. Carlson begins the week ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in scoring (17.1), fifth in rebounding (7.5) and seventh in field goal percentage (.570).
After knocking off UCLA at home, Arizona moved up five spots to No. 6 in this week’s AP top 25, while the Bruins dropped three spots to No. 8. They remain the only two Pac-12 programs that received votes in the AP top 25 vote.
The Pac-12 NET rankings to begin the week: UCLA (5), Arizona (11), Utah (47), Arizona State (54), Oregon (60), USC (61), Colorado (66), Washington State (75), Washington (117), Stanford (125), Oregon State (214) and California (290).
Oregon State’s Jordan Pope was named the Freshman of the Week after averaging 13.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists during the Beavers’ road split in the Bay Area. Pope went 8-for-12 with 19 points as OSU snapped a 25-game losing streak away from home by winning at Cal…Arizona’s Azuolas Tubelis grabbed a career-high 17 rebounds in the Wildcats’ win against USC and owns six double-doubles in nine Pac-12 games…The Los Angeles rivalry takes center stage with the Pac-12’s game of the week on Thursday as No. 8 UCLA visits USC (7 p.m. MT, ESPN2). The Bruins pulled out a thrilling two-point win at home against the Trojans on Jan. 5.