Utah's 6-6 record in nonconference basketball games in 2018-19 meant that an 11-7 showing and a third-place finish in the Pac-12 would be insufficient for an NCAA Tournament bid.
In his eighth season, coach Larry Krystkowiak strengthened his November/December schedule in an effort to match the selection committee's blueprint. The Utes just skipped the part about winning some of those games.
“You really can't afford to wait too long to play better,” Krystkowiak said Friday in one of a series of season-review media interviews. “We've got to figure out a formula to be more functional come November than we have been. There's a sense of urgency to do it faster.”
Krystkowiak and his staff will have to do that without senior guards Sedrick Barefield and Parker Van Dyke and possibly without junior center Jayce Johnson, who entered the NCAA transfer portal this week. Utah also is searching for an assistant coach for the first time in eight years, with DeMarlo Slocum having joined the UNLV staff in his hometown.
Krystkowiak, whose contract goes through the 2022-23 season, addressed Utah’s three-year absence from the NCAA Tournament, player transfers and his coaching style, while pointing to a five-year run of top-four finishes in the Pac-12, the conference’s longest current streak.
In response to one question, Krystkowiak referenced a recent meeting with athletic director Mark Harlan and university president Ruth V. Watkins. “I feel like a lot of times there’s an indictment, like something’s broke here," he said. "There’s nothing broke here, and they know that. They’re fine with what’s going on.”
Harlan validated that viewpoint in a subsequent interview Friday, endorsing the character of the players being recruited and developed. “I think Larry Krystkowiak is an elite basketball coach, and I'm very honored that he's here,” Harlan said. “Matter of fact, I'm very bullish on where we can be, in so many respects.”
Krystkowiak's thoughts on key subjects:
The NCAA Tournament
The Utes never were in NCAA consideration during a 17-14 season that ended with a quarterfinal loss in the Pac-12 tournament to Oregon, an eventual Sweet 16 contestant. “We ran into the wrong team in Vegas,” Krystkowiak said.
Watching the first round of the tournament from a few rows up at Vivint Smart Home Arena was educational for Krystkowiak, and made him miss being on the sideline.
“It makes me sick to not be a part of it,” Krystkowiak said. “There's nothing like being in it. It's obvious, that's what we want to do.”
That remains the standard for Utah. “Larry will be the first to attest, and I concur, that we want his team in the NCAA basketball tournament,” Harlan said. “But what we do know is we got better [in Pac-12 play] and now we're back to work to attain that goal in the future. … This is a historic program; he's been a big part of our history and we're going to work very, very closely to get after it next year.”
Asked what the three-year NCAA shortcomings say about the program, Krystkowiak said, “That's up to [others] to define. I know I'm not going to define myself based on that.”
Krystkowiak maintains that his 2017-18 NIT runner-up team was NCAA-worthy. “I also think we're not that far away,” he said, “and I like where we're going next year.”
With his staff having studied all of this year’s Sweet 16 teams, Krystkowiak said defense — and shot-blocking, in particular — has to become an area of emphasis in 2019-20.
With or without Johnson, the 2019-20 Utes will be built around starting forwards Donnie Tillman and Timmy Allen, plus rising sophomores Both Gach and Riley Battin and redshirt freshmen Lahat Thioune and Naseem Gaskin. Finnish forward Mikael Jantunen is expected to be a major contributor as a freshman and four in-state scholarship players are joining the program: Rylan Jones, Matt Van Komen, Jaxon Brenchley and Branden Carlson.
Coaches are not allowed to speak about recruits. Utah is known to be awaiting a decision from Texas junior college guard Tazjmel Sherman, who's visiting West Virginia this weekend.
Johnson is in the NCAA transfer portal, with one year of eligibility remaining. He may end up staying at Utah after a process that is “hopefully, coming to a head here soon,” Krystkowiak said. “We’re still working through those things.”
Krystkowiak defended his coaching style, pointing to the development in his program of Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma. “I've never coached anybody harder in my life,” Krystkowiak said. “If anybody should have left, it's probably Kuz.”
Speaking in general about why some players transfer and most of them stay, Krystkowiak said, “The circle of influence away from our program is costly. We've got a lot of kids that have the right circle of influence.”
As Slocum considered moving to UNLV, “There was a lot of emotion for a week,” Krystkowiak said. “Nobody’s going to take away that bond that all of us have had.”
On-campus interviews are scheduled with potential replacements for Slocum, Krystkowiak said, clarifying that he's looking for another coach who can fill a multidimensional role of recruiting, coaching and scouting, as opposed to being a specialist in one area.
The Utes’ 2019-20 schedule has few openings, with return games vs. Minnesota (home) and Nevada (road), plus Kentucky in Las Vegas, BYU at home, Weber State at Vivint and an eight-game tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Krystkowiak didn’t mention a road game that Utah still owes Missouri, while hinting about more ambitious bookings to come.