The future looks bright for the young Utah Utes, but Larry Krystkowiak will need to sell it to a restless fan base

The Utes return five of their top seven scorers in 2019-20, and will have two redshirts available.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) USC Trojans forward Bennie Boatwright (25) trails Utah Utes forward Donnie Tillman (3) as he takes the ball to the hoop, in PAC-12 basketball action between Utah Utes and USC Trojans at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, Thursday, March 7, 2019.

Las Vegas • For those who wondered what Utah’s basketball team would look like next season without the scoring of Sedrick Barefield and Parker Van Dyke, the senior guards unintentionally provided the answer in the Pac-12 tournament.

Those players will be missed, but not the versions of them that appeared in the Utes’ 66-54 loss to Oregon in Thursday’s quarterfinals. The consolation is their combined nine-point showing is replaceable, even if that’s not the true story of what they’ve meant to the program.

Without those two, Utah will be built differently in 2019-20. As the Utes (17-14) showed in holding Oregon to 18 first-half points and then allowing 48 second-half points, defensive improvement is both possible and necessary for the program to grow. There’s value in a fifth straight top-four finish in the Pac-12, as the only school with that claim. But such consistency is offset by Utah’s first failure in six years to land a postseason bid, barring a major surprise Sunday, and especially by a third season out of the NCAA Tournament.

The school will host NCAA first- and second-round games (at Vivint Smart Home Arena) for the second time in three years. Utah's actual participation in the event is what's missing. At some point fairly soon, with a lucrative contract that runs through the 2022-23 season, the pressure will intensify on coach Larry Krystkowiak to make that happen.

Krystkowiak could say with some degree of accuracy that “a lot of these kids maximized their potential” in 2018-19, when the Utes finished ahead of some Pac-12 teams with more talent. Utah’s 6-6 nonconference record hardly suggested a top-tier finish was coming, even in a downtrodden league.

Barefield’s scoring only five points amid foul trouble and Van Dyke’s going scoreless until the final 39 seconds Thursday, in contrast to the performances of younger players, served almost as an endorsement of the future. The key is retaining and developing those players.

“I’m sure you guys saw some glimpses of how good this team was and how good this team could be, so for that, I’m just proud,” Barefield said. “I know the future’s bright for this team.”

Freshman forward Timmy Allen, sophomore forward Donnie Tillman and junior center Jayce Johnson all looked like they belonged on the court with the Ducks, teaming for 41 points and 23 rebounds.

“They have a physical presence about them, and they're ready for this,” Krystkowiak said. “I love our recruiting class and everybody that's coming back.”

Tillman is promising to “come back as a leader,” after an up-and-down season that ended positively for him. Tillman added, “A lot of guys matured throughout the season, and we're just going to keep getting better.”

Even while losing only two of their top seven scorers, the Utes will have to find and develop some outside shooting. Olympus High School guard Rylan Jones, named the Gatorade Player of the Year in Utah, and Finnish forward Mikael Jantunen should help. Utah is among the final four choices for Tajzmel Sherman, a guard from Collin College in Texas.

As for the other current freshmen, Riley Battin and Both Gach have to improve. The biggest variables in the 2018 recruiting class are redshirts Lahat Thioune and Naseem Gaskin. The 6-foot-11 Thioune, especially, should have an impact on Utah’s defense, which ranks in the bottom third of Division I.

Returning missionaries Branden Carlson, a forward from Bingham High, and Jaxon Brenchley, a guard from Mountain Crest, also will work their way into the program, along with 7-4 center Matt Van Komen of Pleasant Grove.


The framework of Utah's basketball roster (with 2018-19 scoring averages):

Key losses – Guards Sedrick Barefield (16.8) and Parker Van Dyke (8.5).

Top returnees – Forwards Donnie Tillman (10.5), Timmy Allen (12.2) and Riley Battin (6.4); center Jayce Johnson (7.1); and guard Both Gach (7.7).

Returning missionaries – Forward Branden Carlson and guard Jaxon Brenchley, who will be freshmen.

Recruiting class of 2019 – Guard Rylan Jones, forward Mikael Jantunen and center Matt Van Komen.