Utah’s Branden Carlson’s Utes legacy in tact but Pac-12 tournament status in question

In this very moment, there is duality — with a third intruder now — in the midst of Branden Carlson’s basketball autobiography, as he approaches writing the last few pages of one chapter and begins at least considering the writing of the initial pages of the next one.

Problem is, his pen is currently wonky. He’s like yesterday’s author stuck at his wooden desk, in the middle of meeting a deadline, rapidly shaking his ballpoint, scribbling on a scrap sheet, attempting to get the ink to flow. Those pages of both chapters are yet blank, just empty sheets awaiting stories to be scratched out upon them, stories to be told.

But the darn uncooperative ink has turned an action narrative into a mystery.

An elbow injury that benched him in the second half of Utah’s regular-season finale on Saturday at Oregon, a game the Utes would have been a good bet to win had Carlson not exited three minutes into the second half on account of the damaged wing, is and was the culprit, and the primary reason for what became an unhappy defeat. Both the injury and the loss followed Carlson’s brilliant 40-point performance in the previous game at Oregon State, and punctuated the season with a drab and disappointing 18-13 mark. It could have been more.

The effects of that injury have caused an even greater complication for the Utes and their postseason, as the prospects of their star 7-footer playing in the Pac-12 tournament, which starts for them on Wednesday night, are now buried in a fog bank. Carlson says he has no clue if he’ll be able to go: “I think I’m making progress,” he said on Monday. “I really don’t know. … It’s a day-to-day process. I’m hoping for the best.”

Carlson either is genuinely befuddled or he’s parroting that he doesn’t know because it’s what his coaches have instructed him to say, either as an advantage for keeping his sure absence a secret or for keeping his comeback cloaked, all for Wednesday’s opponent, Arizona State, to figure out. And for other subsequent foes, too, if the Utes stay alive.

They must for Carlson to fill in the narrative’s empty spaces as intended, to achieve something he’s worked for and dreamed about for five years — qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. He will have to play and the Utes will have to win out to achieve that.

Otherwise the blank pages turn, and the next chapter begins.

The deep past is already recorded. Carlson, per sports-reference.com, has played coming up on 4,000 minutes for the Utes over the last fistful of seasons, COVID having elongated that stay. He’s scored 1,803 points, retrieved 814 rebounds and delivered 164 assists. Earlier this season, the big man became Utah’s all-time blocks leader. In this ‘23-’24 stretch alone, he’s totaled 30-plus points four times, averaged 17.5 points and seven boards. The Utes, as mentioned, desperately clinging to the far edge of the NCAA Tournament bubble, would be miles from a bubble of any kind without Carlson’s presence. With him, if he can go, they have dim hopes. It will take spectacular results for them to qualify for madness.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) as Utah hosts Bellarmine, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2023.

But then, no chapter ends more joyously than the one finishing in a surprising slew of victories. “I think this team is good,” he says.

It would be a long time coming.

Carlson’s personal rise — he’s improved dramatically since arriving from Bingham High School, after a church mission that sent him to England for two years, a span when he touched a basketball about once a month, he says — has coincided with a considerable down time for Utah basketball. Ute win-loss records over his span have gone like this: 16-15, 12-13, 11-20, 17-15, 18-13 and counting.

He’s balanced team disappointment with solace and satisfaction in his own game, which fires counter to his team-oriented disposition. His coaches and teammates substantiate that bit of unselfishness, adding to Carlson’s own characterization of himself and his experience inside Utah basketball.

“I’ve grown to love it here,” he says. “The basketball has been a huge part of it. It’s shaped my life, the kind of man it’s turned me into — unselfish and charitable. If you’ve got to be a leader on the court, it’s helped me be a leader in life. I wish I could get 10 assists every game.”

OK, let’s back up here for a minute, back to when Carlson was a kid, a freshman in high school, trying to make his prep team, alongside his young buddies, all of whom were an inch or so within 6-foot in height.

He did not make that team.

“Not making the team taught me that things wouldn’t be handed to me,” he says. If he wasn’t fully aware of that fact, his mom, Heather, clearly spelled it out for him in subsequent years, after he made the cut, once informing her son that, in her humble opinion, he was if not the worst player on his team, one of the worst.

Says Carlson: “She told me, ‘You don’t put in the time.’ That shook me.”

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes fans high fives Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) after defeating the Brigham Young Cougars at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2023.

Shook him into finding or making the time. Along with the newfound work ethic, Carlson gained another blessing: His growth plates kicked in, coming to his rescue. In a single year, he grew up and up and up, from 6-foot-1 to 6-7 and beyond, straight to his current ample height. He made all his teams from that point on, but, even with the growth and the work, unlike a lot of eventual college stars, he was less-than stellar in performance, not playing much at Bingham High School until his senior year. When you watch Carlson play now, that fact is somewhat shocking. He was, however, rated the state’s No. 1 high school recruit by ESPN.

“I was OK, nothing outstanding,” he says. “I was still developing. I had trouble even catching the ball.”

He was better than just that, but, as the cliche goes, you can’t teach height, and that at that juncture was what Carlson mostly had to offer.

After his mission — a time that he says further humbled him, teaching him that he might be something of a center in a silly game, but he was “not the center of the universe … you learn to serve others” — he went to work with increased zeal for mastering the craft that spread out in front of him at Utah. Following six months of getting re-acclimated to competitive basketball, Carlson was inserted into the Utes’ starting lineup. Bit by bit he found comfort and his more complete game on the court.

His annual scoring average went from 7.0 to 9.4 to 13.4 to 16.4 to 17.5, and this past season, his shooting percentage from deep rose to 37.1, launching 151 bombs. In his last three seasons, his rebounding hovered around 7 per game.

Carlson bounced through the turbulence created when Larry Krystkowiak failed and was fired, and Craig Smith was brought in, saying his confidence grew with Smith’s encouragement. “The lid opened up for me,” he says. “It’s gotten better and better every season.”

He adds, though, that real confidence doesn’t stem as much from a coach as it does from, going back to the truth his mom so candidly dropped on him all those years ago, “knowing you’ve put in the time.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes center Branden Carlson (35) as Utah hosts Colorado, NCAA basketball in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023.

Now, the time — those five seasons worth — has been put in at Utah, all with a certain swing thought caroming in the corners of his mind — making the NBA. Carlson temporarily entered the draft after last season and returned to the Utes. This time around, there’s no point of return.

He’ll get drafted or he won’t, he’ll play professionally or he won’t.

But his time at Utah, during which, in no particular order, the introvert — “I’ve said more in this interview than I’ve said for three days now,” he says — married his wife, Maddy, and grew into a proper adult, and hit the books, and overcame an appendectomy, and made his way through Covid, and played for two different coaches, and now will try to heal in a hurry and play college ball for another day or two or three or four or five or six or seven, is reaching or has reached its end.

As it turns out, of all the body parts to determine how this first chapter ends, it will be his elbow. The next chapter? Not even he knows with any exactness how that will be written. What he does know is certain, that the duality of Branden Carlson and the Fates themselves will be the ones who fill in the pages.

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