San Francisco • Casey Jacobsen, one of the Pac-12 Network’s basketball analysts, was the first to pose a question to Larry Krystkowiak. Jacobsen asked Utah’s basketball coach why it is that annually the Runnin’ Utes are underrated and undervalued every time the media reconvenes in the Bay Area for the annual Pac-12 Media Day extravaganza.
“You talk about it every time you’re here,” Jacobsen told Krystkowiak.
Why, then, are the Utes in this familiar spot after being chosen eighth in the Pac-12’s preseason media poll?
Krystkowiak turned it back on Jacobsen. “Where did you vote us? Where did you think we’d finish?” he asked. Jacobsen said right in the middle. Which is kind of where the Utes are used to being, there in contention, ready to pull off a few upsets, but never an outright favorite pick.
Yet, it’s no surprise Utah is where it is in the preseason poll. The Utes lost four seniors from a year ago, who had a hand in winning plenty of games in their college careers.
The Utes enter this season with a couple of senior guards, some returning role players, and a bundle of talented, but unproven freshmen.
“I don’t mind,” Krystkowiak said. “I’m comfortable kind of being the arrow rather than the target.”
Time will only tell if Utah and its young pups can soar, and if so, how high.
A stellar freshmen class featuring prized recruits at every single position on the floor will be called upon to not only deliver, but embrace the spotlight. Senior guard Sedrick Barefield will be a go-to option, a 6-foot-2 scoring guard who can carry the load when necessary. Promising sophomore forward Donnie Tillman has a year under his belt. Junior center Jayce Johnson will have to replace the consistent minutes of the graduated David Collette.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of these new faces playing,” Krystkowiak said. “The freshmen are capable to play.”
They include Naseem Gaskin, Both Gach, Timmy Allen, Riley Battin and Lahat Thioune. Also in the mix is Charles Jones Jr., a 6-foot-2 combo guard who was the JC Player of the Year last season out of the College of Southern Idaho. There isn’t much proven with these Utes. But Krystkowiak said he’s going to lean on the returners. In addition Barefield and Johnson, he believes senior Parker Van Dyke is a Pac-12 player nobody talks about.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that they’re ready right now,” Barefield said.
Utah has superseded preseason expectations in each the last six seasons. Every season they’ve finished higher than they were slotted in when the preseason poll emerged. The only year they didn’t was in 2014-15 when the Utes were picked second, and finished second. Two years ago, they were picked eighth and finished fourth. Last year they were picked seventh and finished third.
“In this game, numbers don’t matter at all,” Johnson said. “You can be a four-star and five-star. It don’t matter. Once you get here, you have to prove yourself again. It’s all proving yourself. I like that we have a low ranking, you know? It just gives us more of a chance to prove ourselves.”
Barefield, predictably, said he doesn’t bother with the preseason picks. He knows Utah is going to be a tough out every night, even with a young roster that will be thrown to the wolves early on, with a stiff non-conference schedule that includes trips to Kentucky and Minnesota and games in Salt Lake City against BYU and Nevada.
“I know as a team we are underrated and we’re always pretty much overlooked,” Barefield said. “We’re never placed where we should be, I feel like.”
From a roster standpoint, Krystkowiak conceded he’d say the Utes are somewhere in the middle of the Pac-12 pack this year.
“Eighth is not in the bottom four,” he said. “Past results are no indication of future performance. So we don’t pay too much attention to it. I think our guys are inspired.”
Can they exceed expectations once more with this cast of youngsters? Can they survive the brutal non-conference schedule? What will this team look like come early January when Pac-12 play commences?
No way of knowing yet. All we know is Krystkowiak is right: they’re definitely not the target. How sharp of an arrow they can be will be the question.
MEN’S PAC-12 BASKETBALL POLL
1. Oregon 288 points (16)
2. UCLA 264 (6)
3. Washington 249 (2)
4. Arizona 205 (1)
5. USC 203
6. Arizona State 165
7. Colorado 161
8. Utah 122
9. Stanford 109
10. Oregon State 102
11. California 45
12. Washington State 42
First-place votes in parentheses