College hoops preview: Are the Utes ready for next step?
Year One was a throwaway. With a virtually empty cupboard and little time to recruit, everyone associated with Utah basketball knew that Larry Krystkowiak's debut as head coach was going to be a struggle.
The second season saw significant improvement. The Utes won five Pac-12 games and 15 overall. The program advanced to the semifinals of the league tournament, and it could have been even better if it weren't for a bunch of close losses.
"We proved that we could play in the Pac-12," said sophomore Jordan Loveridge, who again will be counted on to lead the Utes from his power forward spot.
Year Three of the rebuild officially launches on Friday, with the opener against Evergreen State. Can Utah take the next step? Can they return to a level of success Ute fans once used to take for granted?
Krystkowiak loves his team's added depth and athleticism. The players have openly talked about qualifying for the postseason. The recruiting class has been lauded by national analysts.
Yet, this team may still be a year away.
There's no question that the talent in the program is better. But the rest of the Pac-12 is improved, too. Arizona is a top-10 team nationally. UCLA will again be loaded under new coach Steve Alford. Stanford has one of its best teams in a decade, and Colorado expects to contend.
"We're hopeful that we can really make some headway this season," Krystkowiak said. "The team has worked hard over the summer and it's a team that wants to be good. But the time for talk is over. Whatever we do, we have to go out and prove it. Things are about to get really competitive quickly. We're going to have to be ready."
There are question marks for the Utes.
In his last season of eligibility, Jason Washburn blossomed into one of the better centers in the Pac-12. Utah can replace his scoring. Replacing his defense and ability to protect the rim is another matter.
Senior Renan Lenz will get the first crack at replacing what Washburn provided. The 6-foot-9 Brazilian is much improved from last year. Jeremy Olsen and Dallin Bachynski will receive time in the pivot as well.
Sophomore Brandon Taylor is back at guard. Junior Dakari Tucker will start at small forward alongside Loveridge. His shooting could prove vital to Utah's hopes.
The Utes are still flying mostly under the radar. The Pac-12 media has picked Utah to finish ninth in the league a sign of respect for what the team accomplished last year. But nationally, most outlets, including ESPN, have the Utes targeted for another last-place finish.
"I don't think people know what we have this year," Wright said. "There's a lot of talent on this team. We just have to stay together and play great defense. That's what it's going to take to be successful."
Utah men's basketball schedule
Friday Evergreen State, 6 p.m.
Nov. 15 UD-Davis, 8 p.m.
Nov. 21 Grand Canyon, 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 22 Lamar, 7 p.m.
Nov. 23 Savannah State, TBA
Nov. 27 Ball State, 8 p.m.
Dec. 3 at Boise State, 8:05 p.m.
Dec. 7 Fresno State, 3 p.m.
Dec. 10 Idaho State, 7 p.m.
Dec. 14 BYU, 8 p.m.
Dec. 19 Texas State, 7 p.m.
Dec. 28 St. Katherine, 2 p.m.
Jan. 2 Oregon, 6 p.m.
Jan. 4 Oregon State, 2 p.m.
Jan. 8 at Washington, 9 p.m.
Jan. 12 at Washington State, 5 p.m.
Jan. 16 USC, 8 p.m.
Jan. 18 UCLA, 2 p.m.
Jan. 23 at Arizona State, 7 p.m.
Jan. 26 at Arizona, 6 p.m.
Feb. 1 at Colorado, 12 p.m.
Feb. 6 Washington, 7 p.m.
Feb. 8 Washington State, 6 p.m.
Feb. 13 at USC, 8:30 p.m.
Feb. 15 at UCLA, 3 p.m.
Feb. 19 Arizona, 8 p.m.
Feb. 23 Arizona State, 6 p.m.
Mar. 1 Colorado, 12 p.m.
Mar. 5 at California, 9 p.m.
Mar. 8 at Stanford, 3:30 p.m.
Mar. 12-15 Pac-12 Tournament
Best case • The Utes find some consistent play in the middle, complementing what looks like a strong outside game. The departure of center Jason Washburn has left a large hole in the middle. If the bigs particularly Renan Lenz come through, the Utes will win their share.
Worst case • The big men falter, reducing Utah to a perimeter team. Or Jordan Loveridge or Delon Wright goes down with serious injury. After winning 15 games last year, anything short of that will be deemed a failure. Getting to a postseason tournament any postseason tournament is almost a must.
Watch out for • Delon Wright may be the best guard Utah's had in quite a while. At 6-foot-5, the junior can play all three perimeter positions. He's the younger brother of Portland Trail Blazer Dorell Wright, and he's as talented as any newcomer in the Pac-12 not named Aaron Gordon.