Larry Krystkowiak will never say that the Utah Utes have arrived. They climbed from the depths of a six-win season in his first year as Utah’s coach to the Sweet 16 in his fourth year, but Krystkowiak wants more. Rather than viewing an NCAA Tournament loss to eventual champion Duke as a destination, he expects the feeling of that defeat to propel the Utes into the 2015-16 season.
“You hope it sets a little fire for the guys to work harder this offseason,” Krystkowiak says. “This is the time where individuals can look at what they bring and where they need to get better.”
The Utes must replace NBA first-round draft pick Delon Wright, one of the top all-around players in school history. They also need to get tougher inside and rebound better if they expect to compete for a Pac-12 championship. Otherwise, with the return of center Jakob Poeltl and several veteran players, the Utes are well positioned for another high finish in the conference.
Pac-12 predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
Wright’s decision to return as a senior was a major breakthrough for the Utes last year, and Poeltl’s choice to stay in school as a sophomore could be just as meaningful to the program. Poeltl matched up well with Duke’s Jahlil Okafor in the NCAA Tournament and is a projected lottery pick in 2016.
Poeltl will anchor a defensive scheme that has transformed the program. The Utes led the Pac-12 in field goal defense, allowing conference opponents to shoot 39.0 percent.
Dallin Bachynski graduated, and Jeremy Olsen retired from basketball for medical reasons, taking away Utah’s depth at center. Poeltl will have to avoid the foul trouble that limited him to 23.3 minutes per game as a freshman. Krystkowiak will use smaller lineups when Poeltl is on the bench.
The Utes have plenty of options in the frontcourt. Jordan Loveridge endured some poor offensive games, yet he made 43.5 percent of his 3-pointers and averaged 10.0 points. Chris Reyes is a solid defender and rebounder, although he played only 15.7 minutes as a starter. Brekkott Chapman and Kyle Kuzma are athletic players who will be expected to do more scoring in Wright’s absence.
Utah Utes Facts & Figures
Record: 29-6, 13-5 Pac-12
Postseason: Sweet 16
Consecutive NCAAs: 1
Pac-12 Projection: 5
Postseason Projection: First Round
Wright did everything for Utah as a point guard and team leader. The Utes hope Isaiah Wright (not related) can fill in adequately for Delon, drafted No. 20 overall by Toronto. The younger Wright showed promise in a limited role as a freshman, but he must improve his 37 percent shooting.
Brandon Taylor has the height of a traditional point guard, but he functions better off the ball. He was Utah’s most improved player last season, shooting 43.9 percent from 3-point range. Brandon Miller may figure into the point guard rotation as a freshman, having returned from a two-year church mission.
The Utes are well stocked at the wing positions. Dakarai Tucker is a good shooter who can supply offense as a reserve. Junior college transfer Lorenzo Bonam has some of Delon Wright’s multidimensional ability, and Gabe Bealer is another capable transfer, although he’s coming off a knee injury. Kenneth Ogbe was bothered by injuries last season and hopes to provide some defense.
Key Losses: G Delon Wright, C Dallin Bachynski
Top Players; G Isaiah Wright, G Brandon Taylor, G/F Dakarai Tucker, F Jordan Loveridge, F/C Jakob Poeltl
Gabe Bealer’s 2014-15 junior college season ended with a knee injury in November, so he enrolled at Utah ahead of schedule and continued his rehabilitation. If he’s healthy, Bealer is expected to play a big role as a swingman. Lorenzo Bonam, another versatile junior college transfer, filled a scholarship vacancy created by center Jeremy Olsen’s retirement for medical reasons. Freshman guard Brandon Miller will provide depth, and freshman forwards Makol Mawien and Austin Montgomery could figure into Utah’s frontcourt plans — if they develop soon enough.
When the Utes were good in 2014-15, they were really good. Most of their 13 conference victories came by big margins. That trend may have hurt them in some close games, as they were not attuned to making critical plays at the end. Utah still tied for second place in the Pac-12 and thrived in traditional statistical categories of shooting percentage and field goal defense. The Utes’ biggest deficiency was rebounding, particularly in their defeats. They should improve in that area as Poeltl manages to stay in games for longer stretches.
Krystkowiak’s increased strength of schedule helped Utah earn a No. 5 seed in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. This season’s schedule is similar, highlighted by a game vs. Duke at Madison Square Garden, a home date with San Diego State and a trip to Wichita State. Utah catches a break in the Pac-12 scheduling by not having to visit Arizona.
The Utes are trending well, having gone from three conference wins in 2011-12 to 13 in ‘14-15. Such a trajectory will be difficult to maintain, but with a new practice facility opening and Krystkowiak having signed a contract through 2023, Utah should have some staying power in the Pac-12.