The Utah men’s basketball program was at a crossroads when it joined the Pac-12 Conference.
A program that had national success under Rick Majerus only had reached the postseason twice in a seven-season stretch, and only three times did the Utes finish over .500. Things on the horizon appeared even tougher with national powerhouses such as Arizona and UCLA awaiting in conference play.
New coach Larry Krystkowiak and his staff dived into a rebuilding project. The first year was rough. A 6-25 record in the 2011-12 season was the program’s worst in almost 40 years. Yet things did improve, and significantly so. The Utes have posted four consecutive 20-win seasons and had a two-season stretch in which they went a combined 53-18.
Players with the most playing time this season
Justin Bibbins, senior, guard: 33.4 minutes per game, 14.3 ppg, 4.7 apg, 47 percent 3-point shooting
Tyler Rawson, senior, forward: 29.6 minutes per game, 10.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.9 apg, 45 percent shooting
Sedrick Barefield, junior, guard: 29.2 minutes per game, 10.4 ppg, 26.8 percent 3-pointer shooting
Donnie Tillman, freshman, forward: 23 minutes per game, 10.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 50 percent shooting
David Collette, senior, forward: 22.8 minutes per game, 13.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 59.6 percent shooting
Gabe Bealer, senior, wing: 17.9 minutes per game, 5.8 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 40.7 percent 3-point shooting
Jayce Johnson, sophomore, center: 16.8 minutes per game, 6.3 ppg, 6.0 jpg, 52.5 percent shooting
Parker Van Dyke, junior, guard: 15.2 minutes per game, 3.6 ppg, 25.5 percent 3-point shooting
Kolbe Caldwell, sophomore, guard: 14.9 minutes per game, 3.0 ppg, 34.8 parent 3-point shooting
Chris Seeley, freshman, forward: 11 minutes per game, 4.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 52.4 percent shooting
But after making the 2015 Sweet 16 and giving eventual national champions Duke all it could handle, the Utes did not make it out of the NCAA Tournament second round the following season. Utah lost in the first round of the NIT last season. With this season’s roster distinguished by role players and transfers, some portions of the fan base have raised the question: Have we already seen the program’s height as a Power Five program or are the Utes in the midst of another transition period before returning to Top 25 and NCAA recognition?
The Utes have been competitive against some of the Pac-12’s top teams this season when everything goes right. They look overmatched in other moments. It’s no secret that the Utes do not have an NBA-ready player on this roster this season, and their roster can’t compete athletically with the likes of Arizona or UCLA.
Krystkowiak prefers to focus on the specific tasks at hand, and any talk of this season in a larger context is a non-starter.
“I’m not measuring anything that we’ve done in the past or what I expect to do in the future,” Krystkowiak said this week. “I’m not a measurer. … I don’t feel like we’ve leveled off. I don’t feel like we’ve reached any goals. In my mindset, that’s the nature of a season. You just keep chopping wood. You keep working.”
For supporters, of course, it’s never that simple.
“They’ve taken a step back, but that’s natural,” said Casey Jacobsen, a former All-American at Stanford who now serves as an analyst for the Pac-12 Network and FS1. “Utah is the only team in the Pac-12 that has had three consecutive first-round [NBA] draft picks. That’s surprising to a lot of people that don’t live in Utah. There’s a handful of teams in the nation that could lose three consecutive first-rounders in three consecutive years and not miss a beat. Utah is not one of those programs.”
Jacobsen was blunt when assessing Utah’s smaller margin of error this season.
“Delon Wright, when he was playing the point guard position with Jakob Poeltl, they had two pros on the floor,” Jacobsen said. “Were they still making some of the same mistakes as a group that this Utah team I’m watching now makes? The answer is yes, but Delon Wright at the end of the games would get you a good shot or defensively he’d get you a steal because he was fantastic.
“As good as Justin Bibbins is on offense, he’s not the dynamic defender Delon Wright is. Jayce Johnson, although good, and David Collette, although good, they’re not NBA players. They don’t block shots at the rim or completely take over a game.”
Krystkowiak alluded before this season to internal “issues” within the team last season and referred to getting back to “basics” in recruiting. Among the offseason moves was the departure of guard Devon Daniels, who showed potential as a freshman but was suspended late in the season for an unspecified violation of team rules. Daniels landed at North Carolina State.
“We’re kind of getting back to when we first started this program,” Krysktowiak said in September. “I think maybe if I’m going to fess up a little bit, maybe you start chasing some of the stars in recruiting — the four-stars. You start thinking that’s important and you lose sight of the fact that character is a really important part of it.”
Jacobsen believes the Utes have two future building blocks in 6-foot-7 freshman forward Donnie Tillman and Devante Doutrive, a 6-5 shooting guard who joined the program in September with the intention of sitting out this season as a redshirt.
Jacobsen has broadcast the California high school state championship games for the past three years. He called Chino Hills vs. Birmingham last year, which pitted Doutrive against Chino Hills standouts LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball, the younger brothers of former UCLA star Lonzo Ball. Birmingham lost, but Jacobsen characterized Doutrive as “by far the best player on the floor.”
“If you take a step back and look at the success of Utah’s program, it came from finding diamonds in rough or guys that nobody really heard of and developing them into pros,” Jacobsen said. “They’re not recruiting five-star kids that are sure-fire pros.”
The Utes’ recruiting class for next season, which includes four-star wing Timmy Allen from Arizona, highly touted junior college point guard Charles Jones II as well as 6-9 power forward Riley Battin and shooting guard Naseem Gaskin from California, ranks ninth in the Pac-12 according to 247Sports.
Josh Gershon, a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports, echoed Jacobsen’s sentiments that Doutrive could be a difference maker. Gershon also views Allen as potentially “one of the more productive true freshmen in the Pac-12 next season.”
“If you include Devante in this class, you have a couple guys in Devante and Timmy who should be able to play good minutes right away,” Gershon said. “... There’s definitely some pieces there to be optimistic about for Utah.”
While there will be significant turnover this offseason regardless of how the rest of this season plays out, for those inclined to take a glass half-full approach, there are reasons for optimism.
When Larry knew they were going to be good a couple years ago, they went to Madison Square Garden and they played Duke and they won,” Jacobsen said. “I thought that was a pivotal moment for that program. They can get there again. They will get there again. It’s going to take some continued development and some continued recruiting, but look, their staff — they have my trust more than other programs as far as what they can do when given the right [ingredients]. They can put it together.”
WASHINGTON STATE AT UTAH
Tipoff • Sunday, 6 p.m. MT
TV • ESPNU
Radio • 700 AM
Records • WSU 9-9, 1-5; Utah 11-7, 3-4
Series history • Utah leads 21-4
About the Cougars • Washington State enters the week leading Division I teams with 12.1 3-pointers made per game. It also leads the Pac-12 in 3-point shooting percentage (39.3 percent). … Junior forward Robert Franks leads the team in scoring (17.7 ppg) and ranks second in rebounding (7.1 rpg). He has shot 48 percent from the field (43 percent on 3-pointers). ... Sophomore forward Jeff Pollard graduated from Bountiful High School and was part of back-to-back state championship teams. He has played in 15 games this season.
About the Utes • Utah has a seven-game win streak against the Cougars, and it has scored at least 88 points in three of the past four games between the teams. David Collette scored 22 points on 7-of-9 shooting last season when the teams played in Salt Lake City. … Thursday’s win over Washington snapped a four-game losing streak for Utah. Senior guard Justin Bibbins scored 20 points, grabbed 10 rebound and dished out five assists in the win. … Jayce Johnson has a total of 17 rebounds and 17 rebounds in the past two games.