The Utes entered the postseason rallying around the idea of extending the season for their seniors, but when their postseason run ends, they’ll lose four starters to graduation.
Utah’s NIT appearance, including the games and practices that come along with it, will likely benefit the program most in the form of additional court time for its underclassmen, who will likely have to step into bigger roles next season.
The second-seeded Utes (20-11), who secured their fifth consecutive 20-win season with their first-round win over UC Davis, continue their postseason run against third seed LSU (18-14) at 7 p.m. Monday night in the second round of the NIT in the Jon M. Huntsman Center. The game will be televised on ESPNU.
“It’s been great for, obviously, the seniors and us for the future,” sophomore center Jayce Johnson said of extending the season. “We know what it takes to get where we are, the feel. And if we make it to New York, that feel of the crowd in the NIT and the championship. That’s what I’m hoping we make it to.”
Johnson, a 7-foot tall redshirt sophomore center in his second full season with the program, has shown flashes of his potential, including a stellar performance in a road win against Arizona State. He’s played the final weeks of the season with a foot ailment but has given the Utes minutes of the bench in the frontcourt.
With Gabe Bealer, Justin Bibbins, David Collette and Tyler Rawson graduating, the leadership mantle figures to pass this offseason to players like Sedrick Barefield, Parker Van Dyke, Donnie Tillman and Johnson as the players with the most playing time this season.
Redshirt freshman Chris Seeley, who had his season interrupted by surgery, and sophomore transfer Kolbe Caldwell have also had stints in the rotation this season.
“It just gives me more experience on the court,” Tillman said of the value of the postseason. “I’m still just learning from Bibs. Getting a chance to learn from Dave, Ty, Gabe. Asking them questions. How did they adjust? They’ve been helping me all year, so the added experience is definitely going to help me.”
Tillman played a crucial role in Wednesday’s win over UC Davis in the NIT opener. He scored eight of his 11 points in the second half as the Utes earned a come-from-behind win. They didn’t lead until the fourth quarter when Tillman got to the rim for a layup juts 12 seconds into the quarter.
Tillman made a great first impression during nonconference play (10.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game through first nine game), but his production slowed following a foot injury and adjusting to Pac-12 play against more athletic opponents with more of a scouting report on him (6.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg during Pac-12 play).
“I’ve just got to believe in my teammates more,” Tillman said. “Justin Bibbins, when he has the ball, all you’ve got to do is wait your turn, wait your chance and you’ll get it. Let him create.”
Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak couldn’t quantify specifically how much of a benefit the younger players on the team will gain from the postseason, but he views the task of preparing for an unfamiliar opponents as valuable experience. LSU, for example, will present some different looks than the Utes have seen all season.
“We’re pretty good at guarding ourself, and we’re pretty good at guarding some of the teams in the Pac-12, but some of these tournaments present opportunities to do things and have challenges that you don’t see,” Krystkowiak said. “After Monday, I think we’ll be able to check off a few boxes. …
“It’s all about life experiences and trying to face some of those challenges and get prepared for it. Then when we see it down the road for these young kids — whether its a year from now or three years from now — hopefully you have that little feather in your cap.”
LSU AT UTAH
Tipoff • Monday, 7 p.m.
TV • ESPNU
Radio • 700 AM
Records • LSU 18-14, Utah 20-11
Series history • Utah leads 3-1.
About the Tigers • LSU advanced to the second round with a 84-76 win against Louisiana-Lafayette on Wednesday. LSU’s Duop Reath, a 6-foot-11 senior from Australia, scored 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting, pulled down 11 rebounds and blocked four shots. … Freshman guard Tremont Waters leads the team in scoring (15.8 ppg), assists (5.9 per game) and 3-pointers per game (2.2 per game). … Coach Will Wade is in his first season at LSU after having coached VCU the past two seasons. VCU made an NCAA Tournament appearance last season with its opening round game in Salt Lake City.
About the Utes • Senior point guard Justin Bibbins scored a game-high 21 points in the first-round come-from-behind win against UC Davis on Wednesday. He went 5-of-11 from the floor and 8-for-8 at the free throw line. … Senior forward David Collette has shot 78 percent from the field in his past 10 games, including going 3-of-3 from the floor against UC Davis. He has shot 64 percent for the season and averaged 12.7 points per game. … The Utes have gone 2-0 against SEC teams this season with win over Missouri and Ole Miss.