In the team’s only exhibition game, Utah displayed everything that will make this basketball season interesting.
The Utes were alternately entertaining and maddening, engaged and disinterested in phases of a 96-76 victory over NAIA member College of Idaho at the Huntsman Center.
Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak's players gave him equal reason to be encouraged and disgusted. That's probably healthy at this stage, as the Utes prepare for next Thursday's season opener vs. Maine.
The breakdown of the exhibition is basically as simple as the first half vs. the second half. Utah outscored the Yotes 57-29, appearing focused and consistent on both ends of the court, in the first 20 minutes. After halftime, the story changed. College of Idaho had a 47-39 edge in the second half with an initial 10-2 run and later an 11-0 burst that led to Krystkowiak's angry timeout with six minutes left, even as he used using his same 10-player rotation most of the way.
“I don't think we have an immature group,” Krystkowiak said. “I just think there's certain lessons that need to be learned.”
Anyone who has followed his program for seven-plus season could have scripted Krystkowiak's postgame analysis. “When you play the right way, it was easy; when we chose not to, it was a grind,” he said.
This team is deeper and more athletic than the Utes of the recent past, with an ability to quickly turn defensive stops into offensive success. Without that defensive effort, though, scoring becomes more difficult. As Krystkowiak said, “When you're taking the ball out of the net because you're not guarding, you get into the grind mode.”
So there's work ahead for the Utes in the coming week and beyond, but they certainly showed their capability. Freshman forward Timmy Allen led Utah with 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists in a 28-minute performance that will make this phrase standard stuff all season: He doesn't play like a freshman, or sound like one in interviews.
His takeaways Thursday included “a lot of room to grow, a lot of stuff to look at in the film, a lot of ways to get better,” he said. “But it was good overall.”
Sophomore forward Donnie Tillman and freshman Both Gach each scored 12 points for Utah. Novak Topalovic, a senior center who transferred from Idaho State, posted 11 points and 11 rebounds and senior Sedrick Barefield added 10 points. Senior guard Keun Palu-Thompson scored 19 for the Yotes.
“We're still growing, simple as that,” Barefield said. “I think you'll see us take a lot of big jumps as the season goes.”
There was a lot to like about the way the Utes shared the ball and scored in bunches. Allen's behind-the-back pass to Gach for a fast-break dunk and Gach's lob to Riley Battin for another dunk came on unselfish plays in the first half, when the passers could have scored themselves.
Even as scoring became more difficult in the second half, Brandon Morley two nice passes for baskets, Allen fired a quick pass to Vante Hendrix for a layup and Gach drove and fed Topalovic inside. The Utes showed they’ll be fun to watch this season, with players who should keep improving.
Their immediate task is preparing for a game that counts next week. College of Idaho, a high-level NAIA team, was just good enough to remind the Utes they have work to do.