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Utah basketball: For all the Utes’ progress, they expect more

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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ute head coach Larry Krystkowiak has a few words for the referee, as the Utah Runnin' Utes faced the Savannah State Tigers, at the Huntsman Center, Saturday, November 23, 2013.

By Tony Jones

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Mar 26 2014 01:14PM
Updated Mar 26, 2014 10:45PM

The conversation took place a few days ago.

In a meeting with his assistants, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak spoke of the year that just passed. They smiled at some of the high marks, lamented the low ones. Everyone seemed to be in agreement concerning one fact, however.

"If you had told us before the year that we would win 21 games and make the NIT, we would’ve probably all signed up for that," Krystkowiak said.

But it’s not that simple. Yes, Utah basketball improved and took big steps this season. The Utes proved emphatically that they can compete in the Pac-12. They did make the NIT and played a postseason game that mattered for the first time since 2009. They have a young roster, and the future seems bright.

Still, there were warts on Utah’s final résumé. There was the sour taste of losing the final two games by a combined 44 points. There were devastating last-second losses. There were big issues away from the Huntsman Center that never really got solved. The team and some of its best players clearly tired in the last few weeks of the season, the grind and heavy minutes taking their toll.

Because of this, thoughts on the season have varied. Some have called it a big step forward. Some fans want to see more progress next season and still have concerns.

"I wouldn’t say that we accomplished our goals," Krystkowiak said. "Our goal was to get into the NCAA tournament and win a few games. We didn’t talk about that much publicly, but those were the goals we set before the season started. We don’t feel a sense of accomplishment, but we did take a step in the process, and we want the process to keep getting better."

Keeping his star point guard in the fold is a good beginning.

Delon Wright announced his intention to return to school on Sunday morning, citing a second-round draft grade from NBA scouts as a big reason for him coming back for his senior year.

"Obviously I had a horse in the race when it came to giving him advice, but I think he made a good decision to stay in school," Krystkowiak said. "He’s a wise kid who’s focused on academics. His degree means a lot to him, and I’m excited to keep working with him."

Wright gives the Utes a bona fide player of the year candidate heading into 2014. Yes, he needs to work on his strength and his shot. Yes, he seemed to wear down at the end, due to a heavy workload.

But few point guards in college basketball affect a game in as many ways as Wright. And with added firepower on its way in the form of a heralded recruiting class, Utah has an opportunity to win and win big next year.

"I wanted to end the season better than I did," Wright said. "The scouts told me that I’d probably be picked in the second round and I didn’t want to risk that. They said I could be a possible first rounder next year. I want to improve my game, and I want to help this program win games. There’s a lot of room to improve."

Wright is no doubt excited for the future, and the Utes will go into next season as a candidate to finish in the top four in the Pac-12. First, he said, reflection on the year that ended last week with a loss to Saint Mary’s in the NIT was a priority.

Meanwhile, Krystkowiak said he would hold individual meetings this week and give each player marching orders of sorts for the offseason. There could be role changes for next year. One that’s expected is Jordan Loveridge moving to the wing from the power forward position he’s played the last two years.

The rest is yet to come, but now that the big pieces are in place, the pressure will be on Utah to improve in the coming months.

tjones@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tjonessltrib

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