Larry Krystkowiak is armed with one of the youngest, most inexperienced rosters in the country. Of the 13 players who have seen action for the Utes, a whopping 12 are listed as either freshmen or sophomores. The 13th, Alfonso Plummer, is a junior, but is in his first season with Utah after spending his first two at JUCO power Arizona Western College.
For some perspective, there are 353 Division I teams. Utah is ranked 352nd nationally in experience by authoritative statistics-driven website KenPom.com.
A lot of these kids, specifically the eight first-year players who have seen action, haven’t experienced much, but they’re about to. In-state, forever rival BYU will visit the Huntsman Center for the first time since 2015 on Wednesday evening.
The risk of tossing freshmen into an emotionally charged rivalry, complete with the big-game atmosphere that goes along with such a matchup, is that Krystkowiak doesn’t really know how any of them will respond. None of them have been through it, but the Utes coach did point out one positive when he met with the media Tuesday morning.
“I think a lot of the freshmen we have probably got a little dose of it, not live, but growing up in the state,” said Krystkowiak, who is 3-4 against BYU since arriving at Utah in 2011. “It’s not going to be completely foreign to them I think.”
He added: “The adrenaline, the crowd, the environment, it certainly gets the blood pressure higher, gets your pulse going a little bit higher. You’ve gotta play hard. We’re not going to talk a whole lot about it to the young kids. I think it’s something that’s going to be learned through experience. It’s about staying in the game, staying in the fight, trying to win the next possession, and not making it something it bigger than it is.”
Krystkowiak counts four rotation freshmen with Utah roots, Rylan Jones, Jaxon Brenchley, Matt Van Komen, and Eli Ballstaedt. Among them, Jones has been the biggest revelation, averaging 10.1 points and 5.7 assists in 29.9 minutes per game.
“This is a huge deal,” said Jones, whose father played for the Utes from 1993-94 and is now the program’s director of basketball operations. “I remember every one of these games was just so big. He was always so amped up throughout the house. There was an edge to him throughout the whole week, so I could just kind of sense how big this was growing up.
“When I got into my teenage years, I could see the fans, the players were always on edge for this. This is a huge game.”
The Childs factor
Whichever Utes assistant has the scout for this game, he will not have the benefit of having BYU star forward Yoeli Childs on film in game action this season. Childs was suspended by the NCAA for the first nine games this season for what amounted to a paperwork error during the NBA draft process. Childs signed with an agent, but that signing was deemed impermissible because Childs signed before filing the paperwork with the NCAA. Childs has served his nine games, in which BYU went 6-3. Wednesday will mark his season debut.
“It’s certainly an unusual situation at this point in the season,” Krystkowiak said. “Yoeli being a senior, we have a pretty good idea of what he does and what he’s good at. He’s one of the better big men in the country.
“What they’re going to do to get him the ball, I don’t know if there’s going to be a lot of secret to it, and how much they can deviate and see a different offensive package when he’s back in.”
Twice an All-WCC first-team selection, Childs averaged 21.2 points and 9.7 rebounds last season as a junior before declaring, and ultimately withdrawing from the NBA draft.In last season’s meeting, Childs scored 31 points on 13-for-16 shooting and added 11 rebounds in a 74-59 Cougars win as part of the Beehive Classic at Vivant Smart Home Arena.
“He’s a really good player,” sophomore guard Both Gach said. “First game back, he’ll be looking to do something special. For us, it’s all about trying to shut him down.”
A hard pass on revisiting Emery-Taylor
Wednesday will mark the first BYU-Utah game at the Huntsman Center since Nick Emery, then a Cougars freshman, sucker-punched Brandon Taylor in 2015. The aftermath included Krystkowiak canceling the 2016 game, the series’ first interruption since World War II.
The backlash from that move was profound. When the topic was broached Tuesday, Krystkowiak was not in a reflective mood.
“I’m not going to go into the past,” Krystkowiak said. “No disrespect, but I’m just going to stay in the present at this point.”
Krystkowiak was mostly criticized, both locally and nationally at the time, although the rivalry has continued since without much incident. BYU won 77-65 in 2017 as the series resumed, then took the Beehive Classic contest last season.
BYU AT UTAH
At the Huntsman Center
Tipoff: Wednesday, 6 p.m.
TV: Pac-12 Networks.
Radio: AM 700, AM 1160
Records: BYU 6-3; Utah 5-2.
Series history: BYU leads, 131-128.
Last meeting: BYU, 74-59 (2018).
About the Cougars: BYU star forward Yoeli Childs will make his season debut after serving a nine-game NCAA suspension, stemming from a paperwork error during the NBA draft process. In Childs’ absence, the Cougars went 6-3, including taking two out of three to take third place at the Maui Invitational last month. … Senior guard TJ Haws, a onetime star at Lone Peak High School, has hit 13 of his last 24 3-point attempts, and was named WCC Player of the Week last week. … The Cougars, picked third in the WCC preseason poll, are coming off a 98-63 home win over Montana Tech on the heels of their Maui performance. In that one, Utah Valley transfer, Jake Toolson, last season’s WAC Player of the Year, had 17 points on 7-for-10 shooting.
About the Utes: Wednesday marks the second game of a three-game homestand for Utah. On Friday night, Timmy Allen and Riley Battin combined for 35 points on 14-for-23 shooting in a 77-73 win over UC Davis. The Utes host Central Arkansas Saturday afternoon to close out the three-game stretch. … Rylan Jones is currently second in the Pac-12 in assists per game at 5.7. He trails another freshman, five-star Arizona sensation Nico Mannion, who is at 5.8 per contest. … Wednesday will mark the 260th all-time meeting between BYU and Utah, and first at the Huntsman Center since 2015.