Entering his ninth season as Utah’s basketball coach, Larry Krystkowiak sounds thrilled about the program’s future.
Krystkowiak optimistically compares his team to the era of Brandon Taylor, Jordan Loveridge and Dakarai Tucker. Those players helped take the program a long way, from a lowly starting point as freshmen. So the immediate question, as the 2019-20 season begins Tuesday at Nevada, is how bad the Utes will become before they start getting better.
The related issue is how tolerant Utah's fans will be of Krystkowiak this season, when they're already dismayed by a three-year absence from the NCAA Tournament and question his $3.5 million salary on a contract that runs through 2022-23. In that context, the program's position as of the '20-21 season becomes a logical checkpoint for him.
Krystkowiak has proven his ability to maximize his personnel as a season goes along. He demonstrated that trait again last season, when the Utes rose to third place in the Pac-12 after struggling in November and December. His challenge now is to develop young players and keep them from becoming discouraged during some tough times, as appears inevitable.
The Utes will succeed if: The three sophomores improve significantly and some of the freshmen quickly adapt to college basketball. The Utes should be better defensively than last season, and consistent rebounding will enable them to run and score in transition. Above all, a young team will have to remain encouraged during difficult stretches of the season.
The Utes won’t succeed if: They can’t score. The losses of seniors Sedrick Barefield and Parker Van Dyke and transfer Donnie Tillman will be difficult to overcome, after Larry Krystkowiak’s offense was geared to 3-point shooting. Even in an 88-47 exhibition win over Texas-Tyler, the Utes struggled to find (and make) open shots in the first half.
Bottom line: This looks like Utah’s worst team since the 2012-13 squad that went 5-13 in Pac-12 play. The good news is it also should be Utah’s worst team for a long time to come. The key questions are how patient Ute fans and administrators will be during a building process, and whether Krystkowiak can keep his roster intact for multiple seasons.
This might be a season when Utah, picked to finish ninth in the Pac-12, actually lives down to expectations. The graduation of guards Sedrick Barefield and Parker Van Dyke and the transfers of forward Donnie Tillman (UNLV) and center Jayce Johnson (Marquette) left big holes in the Ute offense.
The tradeoff, amid veiled references to the transfers, is a more unified program, as Krystkowiak and his players keep saying. The Utes have “a whole different tone,” sophomore forward Riley Battin said, “and I love it. … It’s a great place to be.”
In nearly every preseason interview, Krystkowiak has mentioned the players’ meeting academic and off-court expectations, saying the coaches’ having to worry only about basketball issues is “refreshing.”
Krystkowiak also describes himself as more enlightened in the wake of his program's high volume of transfers, being “more cognizant of the human side of things and the relationship side of things.”
Player retention and development are critical components, because the Utes have some talent – and more of it is on the way. Utah expects to sign an outstanding recruiting class in November, with national prospects Caleb Lohner and Ian Martinez, plus Sky View High School's Mason Falslev. The 2019-20 roster features several of his highest-rated recruits, although those players all are freshmen or sophomores.
That's why Krystkowiak hardly can resist playing the future card. “Don't misunderstand this,” he said, trying to avoid creating the impression that he's dismissing this season, “but I've always said the concept of us beating the Arizonas and the UCLAs, some of the elite programs in our league, is our juniors can beat their freshmen. … This is a group that's got a chance.”
Eventually, in other words. The biggest question for the moment is how much offense Utah can generate. Point guard Rylan Jones' vision and passing skills should result in a lot of assists as his career evolves over four seasons, but that will require his teammates' making shots. Sophomore starters Timmy Allen, Both Gach and Battin were complementary players as freshmen; they're now being asked to do much more, along with freshman center Branden Carlson.
The Utes became a very efficient offensive team last season. “We also had [Barefield], who was a guy who could put the ball in the basket,” Krystkowiak said. “I don't know if we have a guy like that to go get us some hoops.”
The points will have to come from multiple sources and via transition, all the more reason the Utes need do a better job of stopping opponents, if they expect to accomplish anything in 2019-20.
UTAH’S 2019-20 SCHEDULE
All times Mountain
Tuesday – at Nevada, 8:30 p.m.
Friday – Mississippi Valley State, 7 p.m.
Nov. 15 – Minnesota, 7 p.m.
Nov. 21 – at Coastal Carolina, 5 p.m.
Nov. 22 – vs. Ohio or Baylor at Conway, S.C., TBD.
Nov. 24 – Final round of Myrtle Beach Classic, TBD.
Nov. 29 – UC Davis, 7 p.m.
Dec. 4 – BYU, 6 p.m.
Dec. 7 – Central Arkansas, 3 p.m.
Dec. 14 – Weber State, Vivint Smart Home Arena, 2 p.m.
Dec. 18 – Kentucky, Las Vegas, 9 p.m.
Dec. 21 – San Diego State, Los Angeles, 4:30 p.m.
Jan. 2 – Oregon State, 6:30 p.m.
Jan. 4 – Oregon, 3 p.m.
Jan. 12 – at Colorado, 4 p.m.
Jan. 16 – at Arizona, 6:30 p.m.
Jan. 18 – at Arizona State, 7 p.m.
Jan. 23 – Washington, 6 p.m.
Jan. 25 – Washington State, 5 p.m.
Jan. 30 – at USC, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 2 – at UCLA, 1 p.m.
Feb. 6 – Stanford, 8 p.m.
Feb. 8 – California, 6 p.m.
Feb. 13 – at Oregon State, 7 p.m.
Feb. 16 – at Oregon, 7 p.m.
Feb. 20 – UCLA, 8:30 p.m.
Feb. 23 – USC, 4 p.m.
Feb. 26 – at Stanford, 8 p.m.
Feb. 29 – at California, 4 p.m.
March 7 – Colorado, 12:30 p.m.
March 11-14, Pac-12 tournament, Las Vegas.