Tucson, Ariz. • It took a technical foul and a cheap ejection for Larry Krystkowiak to realize he had found the first recruiting gem of his Utah basketball coaching career.
A nationally unknown kid from Utah named Jordan Loveridge dominated the AAU summer circuit 18 months ago, showcasing his versatile game in the Adidas 64 Tournament in Las Vegas, and leading Utah’s Pump N’ Run to the Final Four against the best high school talent in the country.
For a Utah team, advancing that deep into one of the best tournaments in the nation was unheard of. Late in the semifinals against a Texas team featuring current projected NBA lottery pick Marcus Smart, Loveridge fouled out. His team foundered. The run was over, but not before Loveridge had made a name for himself.
“I remember the team just wasn’t the same without him,” Krystkowiak said. “He was the talk of the tournament with the scouts and the coaches. He proved that he could play at a high level.”
Of course, Loveridge would go on to sign with the Utes, becoming Krystkowiak’s first prized freshman in a Pac-12 Conference full of prized freshmen this season.
And through the first two months of the schedule, Loveridge has lived up to his billing. The 6-foot-7 power forward has secured a role in the starting lineup. He is regarded as Utah’s most talented player and has already become one of the top scorers and rebounders in the conference, averaging 12.7 points and 7.8 boards per game.
Now, it gets tougher. He and his teammates will face No. 3 Arizona at the packed McKale Center on Saturday afternoon. The Wildcats have multiple pro prospects and will be prohibitive favorites.
As big a hotshot rookie as Loveridge is, the guys he will be guarding on Saturday — Brandon Ashley and Grant Gibbs — were ranked even higher coming out of high school.
Loveridge says he’s looking forward to the challenge.
“I’m used to playing against elite competition; it makes me better,” he said. “I always thought the better the people you go against, the better it is for you because it makes you see where you measure up. I remember watching all of those guys in high school, and you see them all the time in the summer. So it’s a good challenge, definitely.”
Loveridge is clearly comfortable with his role. He scored a career-high 24 points against Cal State Northridge two weeks ago, and he’s averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds over his last three games.
Basketball, for Loveridge, has always been a proving ground. He was the seventh man as a ninth grader on the West Jordan team that won the Class 5A 2009 state title, a team with three other Division I signees — including Rayes Gallegos, who plays at Nebraska.
But he heard a common refrain during his recruitment: Yes, he was a load in the paint, and yes he was a great high school player. But his lack of height for a power forward would make it impossible for him to play for a major conference.
“I think when coaches said that, it made him angry,” said Utah State freshman Marcel Davis, one of Loveridge’s best friends.
“He’s always played with a chip on his shoulder. It made him a better player.”
Loveridge heard the criticism. He bristled when other players around him were thought to be better prospects. So, he went to work.
His last three years of high school became his canvas. His father, Bill Loveridge, worked the graveyard shift. Upon leaving work, he would pick Jordan up, and the two would go to the gym. They focused on his jump shot, his ball-handling and agility. They worked tirelessly together to develop a game facing the basket. All the while, Jordan Loveridge thought about being slighted.
It made him go at it even harder.
“He’s always been a quiet kid with a business-like kind of personality,” Bill Loveridge said. “He’s got a great poker face, and he doesn’t really wear his emotions on his sleeve.”
The results were drastic. A post player as a sophomore in high school, Loveridge developed a lethal package as a face-up power forward. He now shoots the ball easily from the perimeter, and handles the ball well enough to get to the basket off the dribble.
On Wednesday night against Arizona State, coaches thought enough of Loveridge to isolate him offensively and let him go to work. His long arms and timing allow him to be a very good rebounder, offsetting his relative lack of height. His athleticism and ability to drag opposing big men away from the basket make him a matchup problem.
“He’s like a man with a young face,” said Cedric Martin, Utah’s senior small forward. “He hasn’t had any issues adjusting to the Pac-12 because he’s already so physically mature and developed. There aren’t a lot of power forwards that can deal with what he brings to the table. He’s going to have a great career here.”
Utah at No. 3 Arizona
P Saturday, 3 p.m. MST
Where • The McKale Center (Tucson, Ariz.)
TV • Pac-12 Network
Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah 8-5, 0-1 Pac-12; Arizona 12-0, 1-0
Last meeting • Arizona 70, Utah 61 (Feb. 11, 2012)
About the Utes • Utah ranks 25th nationally in opposing field goal percentage. … Jason Washburn grabbed a career-high 18 rebounds in Utah’s loss to Arizona State on Wednesday.
About the Wildcats • Arizona won a controversial overtime game against Colorado on Thursday night. … The Wildcats are ranked third nationally.
Jordan Loveridge file
• Chose Utah because he wanted to play in the Pac-12 Conference
• Was a top-100 recruit coming out of West Jordan High
• Led Utah Pump N’ Run to the Final Four of the Adidas 64 AAU Tournament as a rising senior
• Won a state title as a freshman
• Averages 12.7 points and 7.8 rebounds per game
• Has three double-doubles on the season