The Utes lose some talent, but they succeeded in rebuilding their identity, and that bodes well going forward

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Sedrick Barefield (0) bring the ball down court, in NIT playoff action between Utah Utes and LSU Tigers at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, Monday, March 19, 2018.

While Larry Krystkowiak insists making the NCAA Tournament is high on his list of goals every season, he views this past season as successful in spite of not making it to March Madness.

Utah missed the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive season, but made a postseason run that took them all the way to the NIT championship game. The most significant strides the Utes made came in terms of program culture, following a previous season that included internal turmoil and prompted soul-searching from the coaching staff.

“There’s only a few teams playing at this time of year, no matter if you’re in the NCAA Tournament or the NIT,” Utah junior guard Sedrick Barefield said following the NIT championship game. “With this group of guys, it was probably the most fun I’ve had as far as being part of a team and a culture. It means something to me and to us.”

Now, the question that hangs over the offseason will be how the Utes build off of this and maintain their team dynamic as they lose four seniors. In a program that would rather fit a style of play around personnel instead of bringing in players to fit a system, next season’s team will assuredly have a different set of strengths.

Talking one-on-one with The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday after taking a week to decompress, Krystkowiak lamented not having picked up ever-critical quadrant 1 wins to bolster Utah’s NCAA Tournament case, but in the next breath pointed to a wider-ranging definition of a success.

“Making sure players are improving, making sure we don’t have guys flunking out of school [or] getting in trouble criminally and reading about them in the newspaper, running a clean program so we’re not getting in trouble with the NCAA, graduating all of our seniors, making it to the NIT championship game and winning 23 games — to me, that’s a success,” Krystkowiak said. “Finishing third place in the Pac-12 — that’s a success. I can be fruitcake and I know there’s extremists that aren’t going to be happy unless we we win a Pac-12 championship. That doesn’t define success in my mind.”

This season’s team didn’t match the individual talent level of last season’s, but returning seniors David Collette, Tyler Rawson and Gabe Bealer each expanded their roles while Justin Bibbins became a central figure in his only season with the program. Each played a part in fostering an atmosphere of unselfishness as the Utes finished 23-12 overall.

Krystkowiak repeatedly referenced throughout the season how much he enjoyed coaching this group, but he took blame for not being as vigilant about discussing the importance of culture and players being “connected.” He vowed there will be no “slippage” in that regard going forward.

“Just because the coaches are tired of hearing the same stuff and maybe some upperclassmen are tired of hearing the same stuff doesn’t mean I stop talking about it,” Krystkowiak said. “If they hear it too much then that’s a shame, but it’s important for that incoming freshman group to not miss a beat and to be reminded of all those things. That might have happened in the one year when we had a lot of new, a lot of influx.

“Looking back on it, I spent way more time on basketball-related stuff and trying to get everybody up to speed on the court and slacked on the cultural stuff – which won’t happen again. That was kind of one of those things at this point a year ago when I was sitting back reflecting I like, ‘Well, yeah. You kind of got what you deserved.’”

Krystkowiak often pointed to Rawson as an example of a player who waited his turn, improved throughout his career and thrived as a senior. Next season, the Utes will need players such as sophomore center Jayce Johnson and Barefield to take the next step in their development.

While at least a five-member signing class will join the program this offseason, Krystkowiak said no decisions had been made on players transferring out of the program as of Wednesday. End-of-season meetings with players are ongoing.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of minutes gone, that just graduated,” Krystkowiak said. “I don’t have people penciled in to take them right now. That’s going to be on them to prove, and that’s what’s fun about it. The new guys coming and the combination of the old guys, and you just roll it out there again. It’s never monotonous.”

Utah forward Jayce Johnson (34) shoots in front of aNorthwestern State player during an NCAA college basketball game in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Dec, 20, 2017. (Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

One thing already on Krystkowiak’s mind is how he and his staff might capitalize on what projects to be a longer and more athletic roster with the addition of the incoming class.

The Utes will add three players 6-foot-6 or taller to a group of returners that included 6-7 Donnie Tillman, a 7-footer in Johnson, and 6-5 Devante Doutrive. Doutrive sat out this season as a redshirt.

“I’m really thinking about, assuming we rebound and I’d like to believe we’re going to be able to rebound — Jayce is one of our best rebounders coming back and we’ve got some guys coming in that want to rebound and get out and run — a little less structure maybe,” the coach said. “Devante and Sed and some of those guys are going and making some plays, maybe scoring off our defense. We don’t ever steal the ball because we’re always a real high-percentage type team, but maybe with some of our length and athleticism maybe we go try to score some points off our defense. It could change a little bit. We’re not going to do the same thing every year.”