Utah basketball: Why are the Runnin’ Utes in Spain right now?

It has been a busy offseason for Craig Smith as the third-year Runnin’ Utes coach continues to revamp his roster and shuffle his own coaching and support staff in light of some departures from both groups in the past four months.

That work continues overseas this month.

“I really like this team. I like all the new guys. I like the vibe. We are all having fun and just working hard. I feel like this team is going to be a really good defensive team because of the (communication) we have in our practices and workouts. Everybody talks to each other.” — Utah sophomore Keba Keita

On Tuesday, the Utes boarded a flight bound for Spain, where they will play four exhibition games with stops in Barcelona, Madrid and San Sebastián. It is the third foreign tour for the Utes since they joined the Pac-12 in 2011. They went to Brazil in 2012 and Spain and France in 2017.

More on the new faces, some scheduling news, and the tour of Spain can be found below. But first, the Deseret News caught up with rising sophomore Keba Keita last month to get an update on how the 6-foot-8, 235-pound center felt about his first year in the program, and what he’s working on this summer.

Keba Keita came away determined to improve

Keita, who grew up in Bamako, the capital of and largest city in Mali, West Africa, prepped at Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant and picked the Utes over BYU, UNLV and others. 

He appeared in 31 of 32 games as a freshman, averaging 3.0 points and 3.4 rebounds. He blocked 22 shots and made 61% of his shots, a good portion of them dunks. 

“Even if we didn’t make it to the NCAA Tournament, I am happy with it because it was a good experience for me,” he said of the 2022-23 season. “I want to keep building off it. It was a good year.”

Keita said his favorite moment was the 81-66 win over then-No. 4 Arizona, when he posted seven points and 11 rebounds in the upset at the Huntsman Center. He averaged 10.5 minutes a game, which is about what he expected.

“I talked to coach Smith when he was recruiting me about what would happen. He did everything he told me he would. I was OK with my contribution to the team,” Keita said. “I had plenty of playing time, like he told me. So yeah, it was good.”

After the Utes lost 73-62 to Stanford in the Pac-12 tournament to finish the season at 17-15, Keita met with coaches and set some offseason goals for his improvement.

“They asked me to work on my free throws and my jump shot. They want me to be able to make plays not just in the paint, but out on the arc,” he said. “They want me to expand my game and be able shoot 3s and midrange shots.”

All-Pac-12 center Branden Carlson elected to return after putting his name into the NBA draft, then withdrawing, and the Utes also added transfer center Lawson Lovering from Colorado. How does that affect Keita’s role?

“For now, I am playing the five (center),” he said. “If I am playing with Lawson I will probably be playing the four (power forward), but if I am playing with Branden I will be playing the five.”

Keita said workouts this summer have been spirited and lively.

“I really like this team,” he said. “I like all the new guys. I like the vibe. We are all having fun and just working hard. I feel like this team is going to be a really good defensive team because of the (communication) we have in our practices and workouts. Everybody talks to each other.”

Off the court, Keita is majoring in communication and enjoying school, he said. He lived by himself last semester, but has since become roommates with teammates Luka Tarlac and Wilguens Exacte Jr.

He went home to Mali in May for a week to work at a basketball camp, and plans to go back in August for a couple of weeks before fall semester classes begin at the U.

“I’m enjoying the whole experience of living in (Salt Lake City),” he said.

Nothing plain about playing in Spain

The Utes will play two games in Barcelona, the first on Thursday and the second on Saturday while “immersing themselves in the Catalonia culture,” according to a school news release.

After three days in Barcelona, they will spend four days in the coastal city of San Sebastián and play one game there, on Monday. The last four days of the trip will be spent in Madrid, where the team will tour the capital city and the royal palace.

Their fourth and final game is scheduled to be played in Madrid on Wednesday, Aug. 2. While in Madrid, they will either visit the largest bullfighting ring in Spain — the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas — or tour the home stadium of renowned soccer club Real Madrid, Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.

“We cannot thank (athletic director) Mark Harlan, our administration and our donors enough for making this trip possible,” Smith said in the school news release. “This will allow us to accelerate our development and team chemistry on the court thanks to the ability to have 10 practices leading up to the trip, as well as play four games in Spain.

“It is a great opportunity for us to not only bond as a team but also sharpen our skills,” he continued.

New faces on the bench

Two-year assistant coach Tim Morris left the program after the season, creating a void on Smith’s bench that he filled by promoting two-year director of player personnel Tramel Barnes to assistant coach in early July.

“Tramel is a very bright coach with tireless energy that relates to people at a very high level,” Smith said. “He is an excellent recruiter with a great eye for talent.”

Last week, Smith hired Tyler Larson as an assistant coach/director of player personnel. Larson played for Smith at South Dakota, and most recently has been on the staff of the Santa Cruz Warriors.

Tuesday, Smith completed his offseason hirings with the addition of Jayden Olson as assistant coach/director of recruiting. Olson was the athletic director at Williston State College the last three years.

Utah Utes head coach Craig Smith questions the referee after a call as Utah and Stanford play in Pac-12 Tournament action at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Wednesday, March 8, 2023.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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