SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Sports) – Utes center Branden Carlson tested the NBA waters this summer, but ultimately decided to come back to school for one more season. How happy was head coach Craig Smith when he heard the news?

“We were ecstatic as an entire staff,” the third-year head coach said before his team’s first practice of the season. “My vertical jump improved about two inches that week, and that’s saying something.”

One of the reasons Carlson returned was because his wife Maggie is in law school at Utah.

“My wife, she’s at law school here,” said Carlson, a former Bingham high star. “So it’s not a very good chance that if you get drafted, you would come to the Jazz. We didn’t want to do the long distance thing. That was probably one of the biggest reasons. But then as well, I love the program here, and I felt we had unfinished business.”

That unfinished business is getting Utah back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.

“I didn’t come back to not make the tournament this year,” Carlson said. “That’s definitely something we’re trying to do.”

“I had a conversation with Coach Smith after the season, and that was the number priority for us was trying to get BC back here,” said senior forward Gabe Madsen. “Obviously that happened, and I’m glad we get to play one more year together.”

Carlsen has really developed his game in his four seasons at Utah. He led all centers in the nation in three-pointers made last season, and averaged 16.4 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game.

“I just think so highly of that young man,” Smith said. “We all know his accolades. He’s a local kind, a two-time All-Pac-12 player, and that’s hard to do. It’s incredibly hard to do. His voice, his leadership is at an all-time high. And that dude loves this place. I have so much conviction with this. I get goosebumps talking about it because it’s true. This guy just loves the Runnin’ Utes.

There’s no question the Utes, who improved from 12 victories to 17 last year, will go as far as Carlson leads them.

“I definitely think to lead this team is probably one of my biggest roles this year, being a fifth year guy,” Carlson said. “I think this is probably the deepest teams I’ve been a part of. There’s depth on the whole roster.”

Carlson and the Utes will tip off the 2023-24 season November 6 at home against Eastern Washington.