Utah basketball: Word is getting out about improving Utes
Only three seasons ago, opponents preparing to take on the Utah men's basketball team had at least one distinct advantage: a good night's sleep.
Well, at least in theory. What was for sure was no one was losing sleep over playing the Utes the next day.
"They were just a team you knew you were going to win against," Pac-12 Network analyst Lamar Hurd said. "That's how players viewed them back then. Now, it's a whole different story."
As the spring signing period winds down and the dust settles in the conference, signs indicate that Utah is on the rise. An afterthought when they first joined the league, the Utes are in the mix to be one of the top three or four teams in the conference next year, according to some basketball observers.
The program has gained esteem locally under Larry Krystkowiak and his coaching staff, who have gone from six wins to 21 wins in three years. Krystkowiak's new contract and the $36 million basketball facility going up alongside the Huntsman Center are a reflection of the rising faith Utes fans have in their program.
"I would visualize the University of Utah basketball program as always being in the top two or three or four of the Pac-12," Jon Huntsman Sr. said as the Utes broke ground on the facility last week. "Larry picked it up at rock bottom and has just done a remarkable job. He has my greatest respect."
But it's not just Salt Lake City that has been buzzing about the Utes: The program's recent success has Utah's profile on the rise nationally. ESPN's Jeff Goodman recently ranked the team as the No. 38 program headed into the summer. Bay Area Newsgroup columnist Jon Wilner pushed the Utes into the very last spot in his early top 25.
The seeds of winning were sown even before Utah broke out with a 9-9 Pac-12 record this past season. Hurd remembers seeing games during the 2012-13 season that showed the Utes were on the cusp of being a solid team.
"I don't look at records, I look at what you're doing and how you're doing it," he said. "That team wasn't winning a lot of games, but they were playing good defense and running some good plays. I could see a team that played hard for a coach that believed in them, and that they believed in each other."
Talent and experience that's what the Utes were lacking. They got a bit of both last offseason, with a core that included Jordan Loveridge and Brandon Taylor, and they added a star in guard Delon Wright. The principles that made them simply a tough out the season before made them a serious team in the 2013-14 season.
That success has translated easily to recruiting, Scout.com analyst Josh Gershon said.
"You see the coaching staff has overachieved given their talent level they started with," he said. "A lot of recruits can see that Utah looks every bit like a well-coached team. It's an easy sell: They can just say, 'We're going to maximize your talent.' And not every Pac-12 program can say that."
That pitch has gotten the Utes a standout class coming this fall: four-star Brekkott Chapman, three-star Kyle Kuzma, and three-star Isaiah Wright in addition to JC forward Chris Reyes and international big man Jakob Poeltl. The diversity of backgrounds in that class from in-state, to California, to Michigan, to Austria shows how hard the staff is willing to work to get the right players, Gershon said.
Part of the sell is Krystkowiak himself. He toes the line between player's coach and disciplinarian, Hurd said, playing both sides to his advantage. And it's apparent that he's applied the lessons he's picked up at other coaching stops to his current job, helping him adapt schematically.
"As a guy who had a pretty successful playing career in the NBA, it would be easy for him to be prideful, and I've seen guys like that," Hurd said. "What he's done is he's learned from his own experience. Utah uses things they do in the NBA: quick hitters, how they defend ball screens. But he also realizes he's dealing with a different group of kids, and he does things that fit them instead of saying, 'Here's what I did in the NBA.' "
But even as the Utes improve their talent pool, the shifting tectonics of the conference may well play out in their favor in 2015. Oregon will be without three quality players after a scandal rocked the program. UCLA and Colorado have lost their best players to the NBA Draft. Oregon State, Washington State and Cal are replacing head coaches.
With so much drama in the middle of the conference, Utah's relative stability could help it ascend the standings.
"It provides a unique opportunity for Utah," Hurd said. "You knew they were going to be good before, but now with things happening in the league, there's really an open door to them being top three or why not even top two?"
Late-game management is still an issue left to tackle: Close losses against Colorado, Arizona and Stanford still sting for the Utes. Winning those tight ones, especially on the road, will be part of taking the next step.
But more and more people outside of the program's bubble are confident that next step is inevitable.
"As Utah has found more success as a program, the reputation has gotten a lot better," Gershon said. "There's obviously a lot coming back. From what I've heard from coaches in the Pac-12, that team's a tough match to prepare for, because they get the most out of their kids and everybody knows it."
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