Tempe, Ariz. • At the 11:49 mark of the second half on Thursday night at Arizona, Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak inserted 7-foot-4 center Matt Van Komen.
The only reason this was a big deal is because the Pleasant Grove native hadn’t played at all since Dec. 21 against San Diego State. Van Komen played hard in trying to defend an experienced forward in Wildcats graduate transfer Stone Gettings and a potential first-round pick this spring in freshman Zeke Nnaji, but after three fouls in just over 2:00, Krystkowiak pulled Van Komen.
As Van Komen made his way to the bench, Krystkowiak had some words of encouragement for him. The two bumped fists and Van Komen had a seat.
Van Komen’s cameo at the McKale Center represented the latest experiment in an issue that was glaring this week in losses at Colorado and Arizona. In both games, the Utes were out-physicaled by teams with legitimate post presence. On Thursday, it was Gettings and Nnaji. On Sunday, it was Buffaloes junior Tyler Bey, the Pac-12’s leading rebounder and freshman Evan Battey.
“I was proud of him for getting out there and competing,” Krystkowiak said. “I thought he got a couple of shaky foul calls that weren’t necessary, but he did good. He ran up and down the floor, blocked a shot, made some plays. It’s important that we try to keep everybody’s confidence up. It’s not time to let doubt and different things creep in.”
Krystkowiak has tried his best to not let youth be an excuse for any shortcomings, but he has also been realistic. When you have the third-youngest team in the country, sometimes, things are going to get tough, especially when that youth up against bigger, experienced players.
Van Komen is a freshman, as is 7-footer Branden Carlson, who has started 14 of the 15 games he has played in. Carlson served a two-year LDS church mission after graduating from Bingham High School in 2017, so he is still getting up to speed. Lahat Thioune is a redshirt freshman, so he had a year in Krystkowiak’s program, but nothing makes up for game experience.
Sophomore Riley Battin gets most of his minutes as a stretch-four, but will slide over if he is in the game with freshman forward Mikael Jantunen. According to KenPom.com, Carlson (34 percent), Battin (30 percent), and Thioune (23 percent) are combining for 87 percent of the total minutes played at the center position through 16 games.
Senior walk-on Marc Reininger is a bit of a wild card. Out all season with an ankle injury, he debuted with 11 productive minutes at Colorado, then another seven at Arizona. Krystkowiak noted after Colorado that he liked Reininger’s willingness to be physical and set screens.
“There wasn’t really a set definition as far as who’s going out there, I’m putting it on them,” Krystkowiak said. “You make it real easy for us by rebounding, executing, being a physical presence, doing the things that we ask our five-men to do.
“They’re all great kids and I hope some of them start competing and making some plays, but you could make an argument for Marc and Big Matt coming in and having an impact on the game. They're all kind of unique in their own way and hopefully we can sort it out.”
For the season, Utah is plus-3.1 on the glass, but has been out-rebounded in each of the last three games, highlighted by Colorado going plus-18 for the day.
Utah has a chance to turn this around on Saturday at Arizona State, which has the worst rebounding margin in the Pac-12 at minus-2.5. Around the bend, though, is Washington on Thursday.
The Huskies are an average or slightly-above-average rebounding team, but freshman stud Isaiah Stewart will test Utah’s bigs. The 6-foot-9 projected top-20 pick is averaging 17.9 points and 8.4 rebounds, is shooting 58.5 percent from the floor, and has become the prohibitive favorite for Pac-12 Freshman of the Year.