Since the first game of Larry Krystkowiak’s tenure at Utah, he has had the same group of assistant coaches huddled around him during each timeout.
That basketball brain trust assembled to transition Utah’s men’s basketball program into a Power Five program hasn’t changed since arriving on the hill seven years ago. No program in the Pac-12 can boast of a coaching staff together as long as Utah’s.
Associate head coach Tommy Connor and assistants Andy Hill and Demarlo Slocum jumped aboard a ship headed for uncharted territory before the 2011-12 season. Now, the Utes have become a competitive Pac-12 program, experienced postseason success and produced multiple first-round NBA draft picks.
Whether the draw of Salt Lake City, competing in the Pac-12 or connections to the region, assistants have found reasons to stick by Krystkowiak’s side throughout his tenure.
“I just think they’re a mature group of assistant coaches,” Krystkowiak said. “You don’t want to run off and maybe take what could be perceived as a bad job. I think our administration takes really good care of us here. There’s not a lot left to be desired.”
Utah’s staff didn’t necessarily have strong ties or great familiarity before joining forces seven years ago, but they’ve remained together amid the musical chairs of college basketball coaching.
“There’s a great Jim Valvano line of a chapter of his book, ‘Don’t mess with happy,′ ” Connor said. “So for me personally, I have happy here. At least up until this point, I haven’t needed to mess with it.”
While Hill previously worked under Krystkowiak, Connor and Slocum had no prior ties to Krystkowiak as he formed his first Utes staff.
Connor, a former Utah point guard and assistant coach under Rick Majerus, won more than 260 games in 12 seasons at Westminster College. He was elevated to associate head coach in 2014, and brings experience plus deep ties to the university. After getting to know Krystkowiak, it was an easy choice for Connor, who admits, “I bleed Utah red.”
“It really is remarkable that all of us have been together this long,” Connor said. “I just think we all work well together. I think there’s a real lack of ego among our staff, staring with Coach K. He lets us all do a lot and he provides us with opportunities to be fulfilled coaching, recruiting, teaching and all the stuff you’d want to do as a coach.”
Hill worked as an assistant at Montana for seven seasons, the final two under Krystkowiak. Hill — like the other assistants — has spent his career in the western U.S. with stops at Lewis & Clark College (Ore.), Whitworth (Wash.) University and Eastern Washington.
Slocum had previous connections to Hill, whom he knew from having worked and roomed together at the Double Pump summer camps in California. Slocum coached at Dixie State, USC, Idaho and Colorado State before coming to Utah.
The group’s first season featured widespread roster upheaval right as the school moved to the Pac-12 Conference, resulting in a 6-25 debut season.
“If they would have stayed in the Mountain West and I was at Colorado State that was already in the Mountain West, I would’ve probably never have done it,” Slocum said. “With that move in the Pac, it was just more of a challenge. When I took Colorado State, people said, ‘You can’t win in the Mountain West with Colorado State.’ It was the same thing with Utah. You know, ‘You can’t win in the Pac-12 at Utah.’ It was just a challenge.”
Since that debut season, the Utes have never won fewer than 15 games, with four 20-win seasons, two NCAA Tournament appearances, two NIT berths and one Pac-12 tournament championship game appearance.
Over countless bus rides, flights, film sessions and hotel stays, a level of trust and understanding of roles has been established with what Connor describes as a feeling of “ownership” of the program.
“I’ve been on staffs where it’s about ‘I want to become a head coach,’ ” Slocum said. “Well, I don’t think that comes [into play]. We don’t talk about that. We just talk about winning the next game. When you’ve got four guys on the same page of doing that, it doesn’t shock me that seven years is where we are.”
One big advantage members of Utah’s staff have is they can sit in a recruit’s living room and say they plan to be part of the program for years.
Utes junior guard Sedrick Barefield transferred to Utah in January 2016 from SMU after a tumultuous season that included a suspension for coach Larry Brown (who later resigned) and the program being barred from the NCAA Tournament.
“It definitely makes a difference as far as continuity,” Barefield said. “You know, there’s a lot of kids that every single year go to a place and there’s a coaching change, and it kind of can screw with a kid and the program in general.
“One kid will be used to one coach, one system and all of sudden it’s a whole new system. It’s a whole new coaching staff that they have to learn, and you don’t even know whether or not the coach is going to rock with you or not. It’s definitely a great thing to have been with these coaches for the amount of time I’ve been with them. I just hope that it continues.”
UTAH AT UCLA
At Pauley Pavilion, Los Angeles
Tipoff • Thursday, 9 p.m. MST
TV • ESPN2
Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah 10-5, 2-2 Pac-12; UCLA 12-4, 3-1
Series history • UCLA leads 9-7
About the Bruins • Junior guard Aaron Holiday ranks fifth in the conference in scoring (19.4 ppg) and tied for second in assists per game (5.3). The Bruins entered this week ranked ninth in Division I in defensive rebounds per game (29.9), and they lead the Pac-12 in total rebounds (654) and rebounds per game (40.88). … Center Thomas Welsh ranks second in the conference in rebounding (11.1 rpg). The 7-foot, 255-pound senior averages 12.8 points per game.
About the Utes • Utah begins the week as the Pac-12’s top free-throw shooting team (78.5 percent), the program’s highest percentage since the 2008-09 season (78.1). … Utes junior guard Sedrick Barefield has scored 20 points or more in each of his past two games and averages 17.3 ppg in conference play. … The Utes lead the Pac-12 in 3-point percentage defense (30.5 percent).