Utah basketball opened 2019-20 optimistically, and optimism remains after up-and-down youthful season

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah bench celebrates Utah Utes guard Both Gach (11) who dunked on the Ducks in the second half. The University of Utah basketball team was defeated by Oregon, 64-69, Jan. 4, 2020, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center.

The expectations for any University of Utah men’s basketball team are readily available in the rafters of the Huntsman Center.

Up above one baseline, there are six banners. One represents the program’s lone NCAA Tournament crown in 1944, another represents the 1947 NIT championship. The other four showcase three Final Fours, two Elite Eights and 11 trips to the Sweet 16.

No mention of conference titles, no mention of conference tournament titles, no mentions of trips to the NCAA Tournament that didn’t include the second weekend or beyond.

When the 2019-20 season began, Larry Krystkowiak knew he had a young roster at his disposal, but he was not willing to deviate from the expectations the program is built on. This, with the third-youngest roster in the country, complete with zero scholarship seniors, a freshman point guard in Rylan Jones, a returned LDS missionary as his starting center in Branden Carlson and two sophomores being asked to take on primary leadership roles in Both Gach and Timmy Allen.

“We have always held a pretty high standard internally, and our players understand that,” Krystkowiak told The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday morning, eight days removed from the Utes’ 16-15 season ending in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament against Oregon State. “We shouldn’t be accepting less, and I think effort and concentration are a big part of that. We didn’t win every game, we struggled on the road, but the expectations for me, the bar was that this group kept improving. It was part of the process that we talked about.”

Despite all of the youth, Utah put together an encouraging, if not surprising, 9-3 non-conference run. An opening win at Nevada, home wins over Minnesota and BYU, and a neutral-floor, wire-to-wire stunner over then-No. 6 Kentucky were mixed in with, in terms of RPI and NET, bad losses to Coastal Carolina and Tulane.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes guard Rylan Jones (15) as the University of Utah hosts Oregon State, NCAA men's basketball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020.

The losses were bad, but the wins, especially over the Wildcats, offered seemingly more optimism than even the most-optimistic observer was willing to give back in October. To boot, the Utes play in the Pac-12, which has not exactly been confused with a basketball heavyweight in recent seasons, so with their early resume being what it was, and with the league they play in being projected as a three-bid outfit for the NCAA Tournament, why couldn’t they build some steam earlier than everyone thought?

“The thinking amongst the league was, let’s go win 75% of our preseason games, and if we do that, we can get six or seven teams into the NCAA Tournament,” Krystkowiak said. “All of a sudden, we’re in a situation where we won 75% of our games, with a young team and yes, there’s optimism, but heading into league play is a different animal. There are good athletes, good teams, intelligent coaches throughout, but I remained the same person, win or lose.”

Reality began to set in in the middle of January. Utah, which split a set of Pac-12-opening games with the Oregon schools, was then on the wrong end of one-sided routs at Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State. The loss in Boulder was profoundly bad, with the Buffs essentially leaving no doubt by the time the first media timeout arrived.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Timmy Allen (1) celebrates a dunk as the University of Utah hosts Stanford in NCAA menÕs basketball, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City.

The road losing would become a common theme, the Utes finishing 0-9 in Pac-12 road games, the first team to do so since Washington and Oregon State both did so in 2017. Another common theme, one that would prove maddening, is that for all of the road losing, Utah was really good at the Huntsman Center.

Utah got swept by the Arizona schools? It came home the next week and swept the Washingtons. The Utes lost both games in Los Angeles, including blowing a late lead at USC? They followed that by sweeping Stanford and Cal in Salt Lake City.

Maddening is the right word, because while Utah finished 1-9 in true road games, with the one coming on opening night in Reno, it finished 12-2 at the Huntsman Center. The two losses were to then-No. 4 Oregon on Jan. 4 and Feb. 20 against UCLA, which, at the time, was the hottest team in the league and in the middle of a late-season awakening.

“Both [Gach] started off league play really strong, then played a number of games injured, Timmy went through ups and downs,” Krystkowiak said. “That was the thing with our team. We had some games where you can’t just have one or two guys show up. Some of those times at home, we would get three, four, five guys to shine and lo and behold, you win.

“To start off the schedule the way that we did, it was pretty daunting to play all those teams on the road in a row. We would have had to play really darn well to beat those teams.”

Writing a fair postmortem on this team is difficult. A lot of the negatives can be explained away by youth, but it can’t be boiled down to just that, especially once January turns to February and you’re 20-plus games into a season.

Utah guard Both Gach (11) shoots as Colorado guard McKinley Wright IV (25) defends in the second half during an NCAA college basketball game Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Jones was injured for much of the season, but played through the majority of it. Gach played hurt, then missed four games in late January and early February with knee tendinitis. If both are healthier for longer stretches, does Utah find road success and do a better job of building a postseason resume? Could Allen have taken on less responsibility if the Utes had more depth? Furthermore, does Allen struggle less in the middle of the league slate if he was playing fewer minutes?

The hypotheticals go both ways. If Jayce Johnson does not leave Utah as a graduate transfer, does Carlson play nearly as much and blossom the way he did over the second half of the season? Does Allen morph into a leading voice among his teammates if Krystkowiak had fewer kids transfer last offseason?

Unanswerable questions are just that, but when looking at this Utah season in total, no, the banners in the Huntsman Center rafters are not getting any additions, but reason for optimism remains. If no one leaves the program, 100% of Krystkowiak’s production returns given he had no seniors, on top of bringing in the Pac-12’s top-rated recruiting class, per the 247sports composite.

“With a young team, it is important to see improvement. It is important for me to see guys figuring things out. Overall, I was pleased with this team. It was a rollercoaster ride for some guys, but that’s expected when you have so many new faces.”


Season highlight: Utah defeated then-No. 6 Kentucky, 69-66, on Dec. 18 in Las Vegas for by far its biggest win of the season.

Season lowlight: A 91-52 loss at then-No. 25 Colorado on Jan. 12 was the Pac-12 road opener. That was the second of four straight losses, the last three of which came on the road.

Returning: If no one transfers, Utah will have 100% of its production back, in addition to bringing in the No. 1-rated recruiting class in the Pac-12.

Moving on: The Utes will lose just one senior, walk-on forward Marc Reininger. Utah had the third-youngest team in the country in 2019-20.

Bottom line: The ebbs and flows of a long season were evident, but with so much youth, there is reason for more optimism as the run-up to the 2020-21 season begins.