Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak is not interested in celebrating any checkpoints or milestones in his rebuilding of the program. The Utes clearly are making progress as Krystkowiak enters his fourth season, but he’s not declaring the project ahead of schedule.
“We’re in the middle of the process, showing steady improvement,” Krystkowiak says.
That’s his only gauge of where the Utes are, having gone from 3–15 in Pac-12 play in his first season to 5–13 and then 9–9 (with a bunch of close losses) last year. The growth was sufficient for the school to award Krystkowiak a new five-year contract, and his recruiting success suggests that the upward trend will continue in 2014-15 and beyond.
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The best illustration of how far the Utes have come may be reflected in junior forward Jordan Loveridge’s role this season. After averaging 36.3 minutes in Pac-12 games last season, Loveridge will have much more help up front, which means he’s unlikely to play nearly as many minutes.
Much is expected from Kyle Kuzma, who should create matchup issues. Another freshman, Brekkott Chapman, also is multidimensional, and junior college transfer Chris Reyes also should help.
Loveridge led the Utes with 7.0 rebounds per game, and Krystkowiak is seeking a better effort on the boards from his entire team. In conference games, the Utes ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in defensive rebounding, grabbing only 68.4 percent of their opponents’ misses. That deficiency hurt them at the end of some tight games, but it could fixed by the Utes having bigger players at every position in 2014-15.
During a summer workout, Krystkowiak was thrilled to look at one end of the court and see six quality big men doing drills, a sign that Utah would have much more depth up front.
Dallin Bachynski and Jeremy Olsen are steady, solid players who complement one another at center. Olsen joined Loveridge on the Pac-12 all-star team, coached by Krystkowiak, that toured China. The Utes continued to upgrade their athletic ability by signing Austrian 7-footer Jakob Poeltl.
When he arrived at Utah, Krystkowiak’s recruiting was designed mainly to fill the roster. His staff now can be much more selective in targeting players, and the results are impressive. The Utes will be able to put different lineups on the court and take advantage of certain matchups.
Utah Utes Facts & Figures
Last season: 21-12, 9-9 Pac-12
Last NCAA Tournament: 2009
Coach: Larry Krystkowiak (42-55 at Utah, 17-36 Pac-12)
Pac-12 Projection: Fifth
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 32
Delon Wright was a great discovery for Utah as a junior college transfer, and his decision to stay in school for his senior season rather than enter the NBA was a big boost to the Utes. Wright took over at point guard and finished second in the Pac-12 in steals (2.5 spg), third in field-goal shooting (.561) and fourth in assists (5.3 apg), while leading the Utes in scoring (15.5 ppg) and ranking second in rebounding (6.8 rpg).
Wright and his teammates must perform better in the clutch. Dakarai Tucker took a pass from Loveridge and hit a clinching 3-pointer against Washington in the opening round of the Pac-12 Tournament, but strong finishes were rare for the Utes. They had fewer turnovers than their opponents, but the Utes’ mistakes seem to come at the worst times.
Some combination of Brandon Taylor, Kenneth Ogbe and Tucker will fill the other backcourt roles, while freshman Isaiah Wright also may provide some relief for Delon Wright, who averaged 36.4 minutes per game.
Utah’s 21–12 overall record in 2013-14 was deceiving, and so were some of their statistics, because of a very weak non-conference schedule that included only one road game. The level of competition will be upgraded considerably, with a home game vs. Wichita State, plus matchups against Kansas (in Kansas City) and UNLV on a “neutral court” in Las Vegas.
Krystkowiak hopes that those games will serve as good preparation for Pac-12 play, and that the experience of having competed in so many close battles last year will translate to greater success in pressure situations.
Too many times in 2013-14, the Utes came down the stretch “and were kind of looking over our shoulder, wondering if it’s going to happen again,” Krystkowiak says.
Judging strictly by conference play, the Utes statistically performed better than a .500 team in the Pac-12. With some better finishes, the Utes should be able to continue their climb in the Pac-12 and contend for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Freshman forwards Kyle Kuzma and Brekkott Chapman bring versatility to the frontcourt. Kuzma can execute low-post moves, handle the ball and rebound at both ends of the court. Forward Chris Reyes, a junior college transfer who started his college career at Saint Mary’s, should help with his rebounding ability. Austrian center Jakob Poeltl is a skilled 7-footer with good fundamentals.