It’s a ‘whirlwind’ time for Utah, preparing for the NIT as the transfer portal opens

Utah coach Craig Smith talks to players during the game against Colorado in the quarterfinals of the 2024 Pac-12 tournament at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Thursday, March 14, 2024. The Runnin' Utes face UC Irvine in a first-round NIT game Tuesday night in the the Huntsman Center.
Utah coach Craig Smith talks to players during the game against Colorado in the quarterfinals of the 2024 Pac-12 tournament at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Thursday, March 14, 2024. The Runnin' Utes face UC Irvine in a first-round NIT game Tuesday night in the the Huntsman Center.

Utah men’s basketball coach Craig Smith is doing his best juggling act early this week — there’s a game with little preparation time to get ready for, while a pivotal recruiting window is now open.

On Sunday night, Utah learned it will host UC Irvine at the Huntsman Center late Tuesday night in an NIT first-round matchup (9 p.m. MDT, ESPN2).

On Monday morning, the college basketball transfer portal window opened and will stay that way for 45 days, until May 1.

“Obviously we’re doing both, you’ve got to be able to do both. Recruiting, it’s year round and it never stops,” Smith said, about the busy time frame.

The Runnin’ Utes (19-14) earned a No. 2 seed in the NIT bracket, and the winner of Tuesday night’s game will play the winner of No. 3 Iowa and Kansas State on either Saturday or Sunday in the tournament’s second round.

“We actually practiced yesterday,” Smith said Monday. “Nothing crazy, but we did get in there because we felt very strongly we were gonna get into the NIT and do it. So it’s been a whirlwind here getting ready for UC Irvine.”

While several other schools who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament opted to forgo the NIT, Smith said the consensus from his team was that his tight-knit group wanted to continue playing.

It will be Utah’s first national postseason appearance since playing in the 2018 NIT, when the Runnin’ Utes made it to the championship game.

“There were some really good times this year, there were some difficult times this year and this team has had to go through some different things,” Smith said.

“... This team has had to overcome a lot. These guys work at it. They put their heart and soul into this thing. We’re not perfect by any stretch. Nobody is. But it’s a group that works hard and wants to get in there and be the very best that we can be.”

The spotlight around the college basketball world isn’t all focused on games, though.

There’s an interesting juxtaposition for coaches of teams playing in the postseason right now, with the transfer window opening Monday and hundreds of players already in the portal.

Smith and his staff are among those who are juggling preparing for a postseason game, while simultaneously staying active on the recruiting trail. On Monday, Utah’s coach said he anticipates everyone on his team to be available against UC Irvine.

Last year, five Utes entered the transfer portal following the 2022-23 season.

“This is the first year in effect where now the head coach, the three assistant coaches, plus two other guys, so six total people, can recruit with phone calls,” Smith said. “Only the head coach and three assistants can go on the road recruiting, but now you have six guys that can recruit, six people on your personnel that can recruit, so that’s a great thing.”

When Utah hits the floor, it will do so against a UC Irvine (24-9) team that beat USC earlier this season and won the Big West regular-season title before getting tripped up in the conference tournament semifinals.

There’s obviously been little time to prepare for the Anteaters.

“Coach (Russell) Turner has been there a long time and has had a lot of very good teams. It was a few years back where they beat I think it was Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament,” said Smith, who has some familiarity with the UC Irvine program from his Utah State days.

“Their starting center is 7-1, 265, they have great size. They pound it inside. … They’re very good on both sides of the ball. Their starting point guard is No. 2 in the country in assists, including last five games averaging just over nine per game. And then they play a lot of guys. I mean, I think they have 11 guys on their rosters that average double-digit minutes per game.”

Among the 32-team NIT field is Wake Forest, who Utah beat in the Charleston Classic back in November. The Demon Deacons are a No. 1 seed. There are also three Big 12 teams in the field, including two in the same lower right portion of the bracket with Utah.

If the Utes advance far enough, they could potentially play teams from their future conference — in addition to potentially facing Kansas State in the second round, there’s also the possibility to play UCF in the quarterfinals and Cincinnati in the semifinals.

Utah is the only Pac-12 team in the NIT, after four league teams were selected for the NCAA Tournament.

For the first time in over two months, the Utes will be preparing for a team they’re less familiar with, and vice versa.

“Now you’re out of conference play and now you’re playing somebody totally different again. There’s some freedom in that, too, I think, and they don’t know you inside, out and backwards. We don’t know them inside, out, backwards,” Smith said. “I think there’s something to that. So the first 10 minutes tomorrow, who knows how it’ll be. It could be a lot of different ways and I think you’ll just kind of settle in and go and play. But it means something. It matters.”

First-round games for the NIT will take place Tuesday and Wednesday and second-round games on Saturday and Sunday, with games being played at host schools.

The quarterfinals will take place on March 26-27, also at host schools, before the semifinals and championship games are played at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

The semifinals will take place April 2 and the championship on April 4.

Smith and his team are embracing the opportunity to extend their season.

“I think being able to play in postseason, where it’s win or go home, and you’ve just got to find a way. What’s your competitive spirit about, do you love to play the game or not?” Smith said.

“... To be able to play at home again and possibly two times and maybe even three, but obviously to do that you got to win the first game, and Irvine is going to provide a good test for us.”

Utah Utes center Branden Carlson looks to his teammate Deivon Smith while defended by Oregon Ducks guard Jadrian Tracey (22) at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024.