San Francisco • Sure, Larry Krystkowiak has coached a team younger than the men’s basketball squad he’ll put on the court this season for Utah.

“Seventh graders in San Diego, yeah,” Krystkowiak said during Tuesday’s Pac-12 men’s basketball media day.

While the comment drew chuckles, most of the eighth-year coach’s athletes really aren’t that far removed from middle school. Eleven of the 17 rostered players are freshmen. Another four are sophomores. In fact, just two upperclassmen will suit up for the Utes: senior forward Marc Reininger, who saw action in just seven games last year, and junior guard Alfonso Plummer, a transfer from Arizona Western College.

In addition to graduating guards Parker Van Dyke and Sedrick Barefield and forward Novak Potalovic, much of the Utes’ presumed experienced walked out the door with three transfers. Center Jayce Johnson, a 7-foot, 235-pound big man who averaged 7.1 points and 7.7 rebounds per game last season as a junior, left for Marquette as a graduate transfer. Another 7-foot senior center, Brandon Morley, left to play for Utah Valley. Perhaps most painfully, forward Donnie Tillman made a hardship transfer to UNLV and was cleared to play for the Runnin’ Rebels this season.

Those shifts put the team squarely on the shoulders of a trio of sophomores: returning starters Timmy Allen and Riley Battin, both forwards, and guard Both Gach. Allen, the team’s second-leading scorer last season (12.2 per game) behind Barefield, was named a Pac-12 all-conference preseason pick Tuesday. Gach, a guard who at times played point, started 14 of 30 contests.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what I can do and what my team can do,” Allen said. “With me and Both at the helm, we feel like we can beat anybody. We feel no pressure. The first year of growth was harder.”

Of course, most of his teammates will be going through those growing pains this year. That could make the early going rough for the Utes. And as Washington coach Mike Hopkins pointed out, those early games can have a great impact on a team’s chances of reaching the NCAA Tournament. Utah’s drought in that arena is going on four years.

“I think when you have new guys, there's always early bumps in the road. Unfortunately with the NCAA Tournament and stuff, a lot of it weighs on early season, November and December, to what you do in the nonconference,” Hopkins said. He added he still considers Utah a viable threat. “They've got a great coach. They've got really good players.”

Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak speaks during the Pac-12 NCAA college basketball media day, in San Francisco, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/D. Ross Cameron)

By the look of the annual Pac-12 preseason poll, which was released Tuesday, the media doesn’t agree. Though Hopkins’ Huskies lost five players, the defending conference champions weren’t expected to slip any lower than third. The Utes, meanwhile were picked to place ninth despite finishing third last season with a 17-4 overall and 11-7 conference record. Oregon, last year’s runner-up, took the top spot in the poll for the second-straight year, though it and Colorado tied for the most first-place votes with nine apiece.

Of course, Utah has become callused to being underestimated. Last year the team was picked to finish eighth before blowing through those expectations — just as it did the previous six years. The Utes have finished above their preseason ranking the past six years, including planting their flag in the top four the past five seasons, the only Pac-12 team to have done so.

Allen said he sees no reason his team won’t buck the expectations again. It just might take time.

“They don’t really feel young,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of talented players on our team. They might not be the most sexy, as they say, players, but they’re young in the aspect that we’re all learning together and there’s a lot of teaching going on. But once we get the pieces together, we’re going to be good.”

Even in the near-term, though, the Utes’ situation isn’t as dim as it may seem at first glance. Yes, they lost some big bodies in the paint. Yes, the big men may play a bigger role with the NCAA moving the 3-point line back starting this season. Yet while the replacements for those players are technically first-year athletes, they aren’t necessarily fresh out of high school. One, 6-10 center Lahat Thioune, is a redshirt freshman who has had a year to soak up Krystkowiak’s schemes. Another, 6-9 power forward Branden Carlson out of Bingham High is just returning from his church mission. The team’s true freshman center, Matt Van Komen out of Pleasant Grove, stands 7-4.

And, even if the preseason doesn’t go well, Krystkowiak noted there are other routes to the top.

“I can tell you that we’ve got more stars than we’ve ever had, but we’ve also got a really high-character group of guys,” he said. “And I think we’ve got a chance moving forward.

“We may take our lumps at some point. I hate to say this with our team because we’re never going to throw in the towel, but the fact is one thing we’re lacking right now is some experience, and you need — in order to get experience, you’ve got to play some games, and we’ve got a heck of a preseason schedule. [We’re] really going to be challenged with that. And, keep this unit together and I think the future is bright.”

Utah opens the season on the road against Nevada on Nov. 5 at 7:30 p.m. The Utes’ home opener is Nov. 8 against Mississippi Valley State Delta at 6 p.m. Their nonconference schedule includes games against San Diego State and Kentucky, as well as a potential matchup with Villanova at the Myrtle Beach Invitational. They begin Pac-12 play Jan. 2 when they host Oregon State.

First-place votes in parenthesis

1. Oregon (9) 291 points
2. Colorado (9) 288
3. Washington (6) 273
4. Arizona (2) 263
5. USC (1) 198
6. Arizona State 187
7. Oregon State 161
8. UCLA 148
9. Utah 131
10. Stanford 84
11. Washington State 47
12. California 35
Pac-12 announces new Coast-to-Coast Challenge

Think of the Coast-to-Coast Challenge as 3-on-3, conference style.

Pac-12 Conference’s newest men’s basketball tournament, announced Tuesday at Media Day, will pit three Pac-12 teams against three teams from another conference once a year starting in December 2020.

First up will be the Big 12. Colorado, Washington and Oregon have been selected to play TCU, Oklahoma and an opponent to be announced, respectively, at the Pac-12’s “home” site of T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. The following year, the same teams are expected to play Challenge games on Big 12 turf at the American Airlines Center in Dallas.

Meanwhile, Arizona, Arizona State and USC are committed to play teams from another major conference to be determined in Las Vegas in 2021, with the series moving to New York in 2022.

“It's very innovative, unique,” Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said. “It's an interesting twist for our conference on this challenge concept. We're going to be able to rotate through different conferences across the country where the Pac-12 plays against different big-time conferences, toggling between the event in Las Vegas, which will take place every year, and then the return in another part of the country.”

The Coast-to-Coast Challenge will run for at least five years. Dates and teams for future series, including any involving the University of Utah, have not been announced.
— Julie Jag