The road to Caleb Lohner committing to BYU on Friday evening began several weeks back when he placed a phone call to Larry Krystkowiak.
Krystkowiak, vacationing with his family in his native Montana, did not find good news on the other end from his future combo forward.
A three-star recruit according to the 247sports composite and a central figure in Krystkowiak’s 2020 recruiting class, Lohner called the University of Utah coach, asking to be let out of his national letter of intent.
Multiple sources have told The Salt Lake Tribune in recent weeks that Lohner’s request came as a complete surprise to Krystkowiak and his coaching staff. That notion holds water given the timetable of Lohner’s recruitment.
With Utes assistant Tommy Connor at the wheel of his recruitment, Lohner, who finished his high school career at budding national contender Wasatch Academy in Mount Pleasant, offered a verbal commitment to Utah on Aug. 21, 2019. The son of former BYU basketball player Matt Lohner (1991-92, 1994-96), and whose parents one source described to The Tribune as “active” in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Lohner’s commitment to Utah was viewed as a boon for the program. This, after BYU was considered among the favorites for his services.
Lohner signed his NLI on Nov. 13, the first day allowable during the first of two signing periods during an academic year. A significant part of Krystkowiak’s surprise at Lohner’s phone call stemmed from just how long Lohner was committed to Utah. Furthermore, Krystkowiak and his staff were working under the assumption Lohner was coming, meaning they stopped recruiting for that roster spot, in the process passing on an untold number of other prospects over 10 months.
“We were all completely shocked, none of us saw that happening,” Utes sophomore point guard Rylan Jones told The Tribune on June 17, two days after Utah announced it would release Lohner from his NLI. “We didn’t know anything until it started getting out there 11 or 12 days ago.”
The easy way or the hard way
A national letter of intent is essentially a legally binding agreement between a prospective student-athlete and a school once he or she signs it. Once an athlete signs the NLI, he or she is tethered to that school for the following year. NLI release requests do happen, but short of a coaching change before a student-athlete enrolls or some other unforeseen circumstances, such a radical move is considered rare.
Utah had two options. Grant Lohner a full release, allowing him to enroll wherever he wants, or don’t grant the release, hold Lohner hostage to his NLI, and have it turn messy. The possibility existed that if Utah would not let him out, Lohner would have enrolled somewhere else anyway, and in turn lose a year of eligibility.
For any school dealing with this, not granting a full release is a no-win situation, even with rumors flying that Lohner wanted out so he could attend Utah’s in-state archrival. If Utah had held Lohner to his NLI, essentially blocking him from playing next season, it would have put Utah in a negative light, and Krystkowiak would have come off as a bully. Few if any recruits, especially in this day and age of social media and seconds-long news cycles, are worth going to the mat over if they want to go somewhere else.
Having spoken to Lohner, multiple sources told The Tribune that Krystkowiak soon spoke with Mark Harlan, his athletic director. In matters like this, Harlan generally subscribes to the thinking that if a student-athlete doesn’t want to be here, he or she doesn’t have to be here.
Krystkowiak walked Harlan through what happened and ultimately, there wasn’t much of a debate, let alone an argument, in trying to decide on the next step. Harlan and Krystkowiak agreed that Utah would give Lohner his full release, allowing him to go wherever he wanted as a freshman, whether that be BYU or otherwise.
Utah announced June 15 that it would give Lohner his full NLI release.
“Coach K has no control over things like this; it’s not his fault that there was all this craziness,” Jones said. “I love playing for him and I think this team has a strong culture and togetherness. I hope this situation brings us even more together.
“These are the guys we’re going to war with, these are the guys I want to go to war with. I want to play my butt off for all these guys. That’s the beauty of our program.”
The burden of proof
Mark Pope has been a college head coach for five years, four at Utah Valley and last season at BYU. All of his teams, including his first in Provo, have featured transfers. Next season, BYU will feature 7-foot-3 Purdue graduate transfer Matt Haarms and UVU graduate transfer point guard Brandon Averette, who played his first two years under Pope in Orem.
Between Pope aggressively pursuing transfers annually, Lohner’s family ties at BYU, and his parents being active LDS Church members, the word “tampering” has been liberally used for the past three weeks behind the scenes, not to mention every corner of social media.
Generally speaking, tampering is hard to prove. If it wasn’t, low and mid-major coaches would be bringing allegations to the NCAA every time one of their players gets pilfered by a high-major. Even if someone came up with real, tangible proof of tampering, the end result would still include the player in question leaving, just like Lohner.
Even if the phone conversation between Krystkowiak and Harlan did touch on Pope tampering and what to do about it, that topic was clearly deemed irrelevant, at least in the short term.
“Good luck proving it,” one Pac-12 assistant coach told The Tribune, speaking generally on the topic.
New holes to fill
With versatility at either forward spot, Lohner would have fought for immediate rotation minutes at the 4, with the ability to step out to the wing as a part of bigger lineups.
How Lohner would have found the floor, at least at the outset, is up for some debate.
On paper, the Utes are thin up front, but the options at least have experience. Sophomore 7-footer Branden Carlson is entrenched at center after showing flashes of a high ceiling in starting 29 of the 30 games he played in as a freshman. Classmate Mikael Jantunen projects to start next to him after shooting 66% from the floor last season, while junior Riley Battin will also challenge for minutes at the 4. Redshirt sophomore forward Lahat Thiune played limited minutes in 25 games.
“When you’re coming in as a freshman, you have no idea what to expect, good or bad,” Jones said. “We have Mickey [Jantunen], Riley also played a lot of minutes for us, both were very good last year. Caleb is super talented, a great player, but he was going to have to come in and outplay guys that have already played for us.”
None of this accounts for the fact that Utah now has two open scholarships at this very late juncture of the 2020 recruiting cycle. Krystkowiak and his staff have pursued a handful of uncommitted seniors, but to no avail. Most notable among them was three-star Veritas Prep (Calif.) wing Carlos Rosario, who ultimately chose Washington State out of a group of four finalists that included the Utes.
The NCAA Transfer Portal always remains an option, especially when trying to snag an immediately eligible graduate transfer, but that avenue is also looking dry. The portal could see one last rush of options once the deadline for prospects to remove their name from the NBA draft comes and goes on Aug. 3.