Runnin Utes set to open practice Wednesday as optimism for 2020-21 persists

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Timmy Allen (1) celebrates with the fans in the final seconds of overtime play as Utah beats Stanford 64-56 in NCAA menÕs basketball, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City.

By recent standards, the University of Utah men’s basketball program enjoyed a tame offseason.

Yes, Both Gach transferred and Caleb Lohner asked for and received a release from a National Letter of Intent, but there was no mass exodus to the NCAA Transfer Portal. The core of last season’s team returns, sans Gach, and there is legitimate optimism the Utes can take a step forward and potentially reach the program’s first NCAA Tournament since 2016.

That, of course, assumes we get a full season in, or at least something close to it, as the COVID-19 pandemic rolls on. This is what we know for now. Utah is scheduled to open practice on Wednesday, beginning the clock of 42 days to get 30 practices in. Its schedule is not set in stone (more on that below), but the 42-day window means the Utes can open their season on Nov. 25.

For now, here is a primer as Utah, 16-15 a year ago and with a 2020-21 roster heavy on underclassmen, prepares to get the season rolling.

Timmy Allen returns as a junior

Allen entered the NBA draft, but the expectation was always that the junior wing would return to Salt Lake City. His return, frankly, is hugely critical.

Allen led the Utes last season in scoring (17.3 PPG), rebounding (7.3 RPG) and minutes (35.5 MPG). Furthermore, when Allen decides to be a willing defender, he is among Utah’s most-versatile options on that side of the floor.

Allen has shown capable of shouldering a heavy load if need be, especially on offense, but that burden is expected to be lightened as players have become older and gained some experience. Either way, Allen is going to play a ton and will be asked to do a lot.

Allen naturally fits on the wing, but he could slide down to the post if Utah decides to go small.

What will Alfonso Plummer do for an encore?

When we last saw the 6-foot-1 lefty sharpshooter, he hit 11 3-pointers and shot 12-for-17 from the field for a career-high 35 points against Oregon State in a first-round loss at the Pac-12 Tournament.

That afternoon was part of a late-season awakening in which Plummer averaged 18.8 points and shot 55.8% from 3-point range. On the surface, Plummer slides right into Larry Krystkowiak’s lineup, potentially as the first option off the bench, but there’s one thing to note.

Plummer needs to start defending. Krystkowiak has said it a lot, Plummer has even said he is lazy in practice sometimes. Plummer can get hot and stay hot offensively, but if he wants a consistent role, he needs to be a willing defender on an every-night basis for Krystkowiak.

In a vacuum, with Gach gone, Plummer could be Krystkowiak’s opening-night starter at shooting guard, but a scoring option off the bench feels more likely right now. Sophomore Jaxon Brenchley will challenge for rotation minutes at the 2, as will a pair of freshmen, Pelle Larsson and Ian Martinez. About that ...

Larsson and Martinez will command immediate floor time

The Caleb Lohner Saga aside, Krystkowiak’s 2020 recruiting class could yield immediate results.

Martinez needs to get stronger, but his explosiveness is something Utah has not had in its lineup in the recent past. That factor alone will make it hard to keep Martinez off the floor. Larsson, a native Swede with extensive FIBA experience with the country’s national-team program, can play either guard spot.

If Larsson can adjust to the physicality and the American style of play in general, it’s not hard to see him slide into that vacant starting spot at the 2, maybe not immediately, but sooner than later. Remember, Larsson played professionally last season in Sweden, so he shouldn’t come in intimidated.

However that shakes out, Krystkowiak has a good number of backcourt options, with at least Larsson and Allen able to play multiple positions.

The frontcourt is deeper than a year ago

Sophomore 7-footer Branden Carlson (7.0 PPG, 3.9 RPG in 2019-20) showed flashes last season of being an above-average Pac-12 big man, specifically as an imposing figure at the rim defensively. He is a mortal lock to start at center.

The 4-spot is where things get interesting. Junior Riley Battin played in all 31 games and started 28 a year ago, but his minutes and role waned late in the season as sophomore Mikael Jantunen emerged.

Jantunen started the final three games last season, averaging 8.7 rebounds in 33.3 minutes per contest. Jantunen’s rebounding at times left something to be desired, but generally, his work around the rim was solid. His field-goal percentage was tops among regular Utah contributors at 66.1% and while there was an occasional 3-point attempt, Jantunen understands who he is and what is expected of him.

Jantunen is the projected starter, but Battin will have a say in the rotation. Beyond those two, Krystkowiak has talked up 6-foot-10 redshirt sophomore Lahat Thioune, who is listed on the roster at 243 pounds, 25 pounds heavier than his listed weight last season of 218.

What does the schedule look like?

Uh, yeah. We’re not quite there yet.

Multiple sources indicated to The Salt Lake Tribune on Monday morning that a Pac-12 conference schedule is still at least a week away, and maybe two.

Until the Pac-12 schedule is in stone, Utah can not solidify its nonconference schedule, but here is what’s known, or at least floating around out there.

The expectation is that the Pac-12 will green light a 20-game schedule, with two of the games to be played in December. Assuming 20 league games, Utah is then free to schedule up to seven nonconference contests. Among the seven would be a multi-team event, colloquially referred to as an MTE, containing eight teams and three games.

The Battle 4 Atlantis Field, with Dayton replacing Duke, is expected to move to Sioux Falls, S.D., for an eight-team, three-game MTE beginning Nov. 25, but that is not yet official.

That would be Utah’s MTE, meaning it could schedule up to four more nonconference games. What becomes of those four openings remains cloaked in mystery.

The Tribune reported Oct. 1 that Utah’s trip to Missouri, originally scheduled for Nov. 13, “likely isn’t happening with all the reshuffling.”