Larry Krystkowiak marveled how easily Utah's basketball players drove into the lane, making plays. Naturally, that worried him, recognizing how his defense was being exploited in practice.
That snapshot captures the 2018-19 Runnin' Utes quite well. This team can do things that Krystkowiak's clubs have never done, leading to this question: Can these Utes also do what his teams have always done?
The two phases are intertwined. As Krystkowiak likes to say, this is not football. The Utes' ability to run and score hinges on stopping opponents and rebounding the ball. That point was driven home in the contrasting halves of Thursday's 96-76 exhibition win over NAIA opponent College of Idaho. The theory that defense leads into offense is true with this team, because the Utes can score points in bunches when they're not in-bounding the ball after an opponent's basket.
Undoubtedly, the ’18-19 Utes will be more entertaining than any of Krystkowiak’s past teams. Not even the Sweet 16 team of 2015 was always fun to watch. Beyond that, with a freshman class featuring forward Timmy Allen and guard Both Gach, the Utes have a strong foundation for the future.
The Utes will succeed if: An upgraded nonconference schedule serves to give them confidence, as opposed to eroding it. And once Pac-12 play starts, the freshmen will have to play consistently for Utah to achieve its usual top-four finish. When they’re rolling, the Utes will score a lot of points.
The Utes won’t succeed if: The defense doesn’t measure up to the program’s traditional standards. Resembling the Utah football program’s evolution, the Runnin' Utes have some offensive capability now. But they won’t always be able to merely outscore opponents; they have to stop them.
Bottom line: This freshman class gives Krystkowiak’s program an entirely new dimension. Allen and Gach, especially, will be something to see as they develop, and they should help the Utes make some NCAA Tournament runs. This year, though? Just getting into the NCAA field would be adequate progress for Krystkowiak in his eighth season.
Those two are capable of becoming All-Pac-12 players. The immediate question is how long it will take this team to develop. Krystkowiak’s upgraded nonconference schedule will provide some answers in November and December, and then the Utes will launch Pac-12 play as the conference’s eighth-place pick in the preseason media poll.
The asterisk is that Utah usually finishes above expectations, and the freshmen should improve by January. “We’re still growing, simple as that,” senior guard Sedrick Barefield said after the exhibition game. “I think you’ll see us take a lot of big jumps as the season goes.”
Krystkowiak always has relied on a structured offense to generate shots. This season, Utah’s roster will dictate more freedom — as long as defensive success enables the Utes to get out and run. In advance of Thursday’s season opener vs. Maine, Krystkowiak recognized he needs to install a few more half-court sets for the possessions when the opposing defense is set.
Prior to the exhibition game, Krystkowiak had said, “We have a team where we can keep things simpler. We'll be able to score more off our defense and we'll be able to score more in transition. … We can afford to have less play calls, and then you'll have less confusion.”
There's no doubt the Utes are deeper and more athletic than his teams of the past. Krystkowiak used 10 players in his basic rotation Thursday, even with center Jayce Johnson sidelined by a foot injury, and they all looked like they belonged on the court. The coaching staff is evolving, trying to maximize this group's skills with more trapping and pressing, especially among the reserves.
All times Mountain
Thursday — Maine, 7 p.m.
Nov. 12 – at Minnesota, 7 p.m.
Nov. 15 – Mississippi Valley State, 6 p.m.
Nov. 22 – vs. Hawaii at Fullerton, Calif., 9:30 p.m.
Nov. 23/25 – Wooden Legacy at Fullerton, Calif., TBD.
Dec. 1 – Tulsa, 3 p.m.
Dec. 8 – vs. BYU at Vivint Smart Home Arena, noon.
Dec. 15 – at Kentucky, 3 p.m.
Dec. 17 – Florida A&M, 6 p.m.
Dec. 21 – Northern Arizona, 7 p.m.
Dec. 29 – Nevada, noon.
Jan. 3 – at Arizona State, 6 p.m.
Jan. 5 – at Arizona, noon.
Jan. 10 – Washington, 8 p.m.
Jan. 12 – Washington State, 6 p.m.
Jan. 20 – Colorado, 4 p.m.
Jan. 24 – at Stanford, 7 p.m.
Jan. 26 – at California, 8 p.m.
Jan. 31 – Oregon, 7 p.m.
Feb. 2 – Oregon State, 3 p.m.
Feb. 6 – at USC, 9 p.m.
Feb. 9 – at UCLA, 3 p.m.
Feb. 14 – Arizona, 7 p.m.
Feb. 16 – Arizona State, 8 p.m.
Feb. 20 – at Washington, 9 p.m.
Feb. 23 – at Washington State, 6 p.m.
March 2 – at Colorado, 4 p.m.
March 7 – USC, 8 p.m.
March 9 – UCLA, 5 p.m.
March 13-16 – Pac-12 tournament, Las Vegas.